Classical review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

At the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

At the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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THE big question was: why? Why had the Scottish Chamber Orchestra brought together Brahms’s two gargantuan, enormously demanding piano concertos in a single concert?

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/ Elizabeth Leonskaja

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

*****

Why perform them with the lighter forces of a chamber orchestra, rather than the weight and richness of a symphony orchestra? Why did a soloist – in this case, renowned Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja – want to tackle two of the repertoire’s most fearsome concertos in a single sitting? And why on earth should the whole enterprise make good listening for an audience?

The SCO’s all-Brahms evening was provocative on so many levels, but by the end of a revelatory performance, all questions had been answered, all doubts dispelled.

What held it together was the mesmerising, breathtakingly intense (and touchingly modest) presence of Leonskaja. She paced her elemental energy expertly across the two works, with plenty in reserve for a witty, even mischievous finale to the Second Concerto, and her control of balance, voicing and weighting was simply astonishing. Right-hand melodies rang with bell-like clarity in her volcanic first movement to the First Concerto, and there was an appealing freshness and spontaneity to the Second Concerto’s exquisite slow movement. It took a while to get used to the more transparent sound of the SCO (under Okko Kamu’s urgent direction) in these works, but it proved a compelling match for the piercing clarity of Leonskaja’s playing.

And in the end, hearing the two works back to back was yet another revelation, pointing up connections and contrasts – not least between the First Concerto’s anguished turbulence and the Second’s hard-won lyricism. Provocative and risky, certainly, but ultimately a resounding triumph.

Seen on 13.11.14

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