Saturday night saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play what looked on paper to be an interesting programme of twentieth and twenty-first century music under the baton (or rather hands) of their Estonian principal guest conductor Olari Elts. The audience in the Queen’s Hall was somewhat disappointing although quite good for an Edinburgh performance of new music (how I wish I could never say that!).
The first piece on the programme was György Ligeti’s Concerto Românesc. I don’t know much Ligeti but what I know I tend to like; and this proved to be one of his best I’ve heard so far. It was an absolutely stonking piece played with the incredible dexterity one expects from the SCO. Particular mention must go to guest leader Alexander Janiczek for his outstanding solos particularly in the fourth movement. The third, offstage, horn in the third movement was especially effective in the Queen’s Hall acoustic. Exciting as this was, ten minutes of great music does not a great programme make. The rest of the evening produced fine fare but not at such a high standard. The main draw, at least for myself, was the world première of the eighth Symphony by Elts’ compatriot Erkki-Sven Tüür (technically the second performance as the true première had been the night before in Glasgow). This was a very finely wrought piece – some might say overwrought – and would probably have been impenetrable if not for Tüür’s extremely informative pre concert discussion of the principle features of the piece. As it was the talk (accompanied by some rather doubtful, but incredibly useful, midi synthesised samples of key moments) made it at lot easier to know what to listen out for. The symphony was an interesting work and if I am not particularly inclined to revisit it in future, I shall certainly look out for more of Tüür’s work as he seems to be a talented composer (at least with seven previous symphonies plus a good deal of other material there should be plenty to chose from, although given that I have not heard his name before I have no idea how much has been recorded)
The second half of the concert was taken up with Sibelius’s third symphony – a fine work, and doubtless the only familiar item on the programme for much of the audience. The performance was not the finest I have heard, and this was obvious despite the fact that I have never heard it live before. Particularly in the first movement the sound was muddy at times, with Elts failing do bring out individual instrumental lines. Nonetheless the second and third movements improved, and there was obviously a great relationship between orchestra and conductor and the applause at the end showed the performance was well received. It seemed to be a case of the whole being greater than its parts as despite the failings the general impression was one of an excellent performance.
From this concert it is obvious where Elts’ strengths lie. His handling of the Ligeti and the Tüür was exemplary, as would be expected giving his background in contemporary music. His Sibelius was much less assured and he could do with taking a leaf out of the many excellent interpreters the piece has recieved over the years (not all of them Scandinavian – Mark Elder’s excellent live recording with the Hallé a few years back being a case in point).