Adam Nicholson


From the stately symphonic to the theatrically avant-garde, the SSO are back with a diverse programme of Haydn, Ligeti, and Wagner in this tremendous orchestral offering.

The programme of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is diverse and varied annually, however, it is interesting that tonight's concert may serve as a microcosm for their work all year round. For many, it may be one of the events seen on a subway poster and only half-registered. If you have never attended an orchestral evening, the many offerings of the SSO are a perfect place to start, especially as tickets can be had for under-26s at a mere £6. The particular event in question — The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure — offered three pieces across approximately two hours, ranging from the stately symphonic to the theatrically avant-garde.

​The programme consisted of three pieces: Haydn’s Symphony No.22, Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, and (after a short interval) the titular Wagner’s The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure, arranged by De Vlieger into a symphonic performance a little over an hour long, as opposed to Wagner’s four operas of over 15 hours. The City Halls are whitewashed, as if a blank canvas upon which the orchestra paints in different hues. These three pieces complement one another in a programme which begins with a traditional piece, followed by a wild theatrical one, and then finishes with a blend of these two extremes, all deftly conducted with charm by Antony Hermus, making his SSO debut that evening.

​Haydn’s Symphony No.22 in E Flat (The Philosopher) is a more traditional piece, played with a reduced orchestra. It begins gently, and remains composed throughout, never breaking beyond the strictures of 18th century classicism. The comparative unsettledness of the second and fourth movements will feel more familiar to any philosophy students than the stately composure of the first and third. Throughout, the harpsichord tinkles occasionally, like puffs of perfume suddenly sensed. That being said, perhaps by virtue of its brevity and calm, the piece feels more akin to an amuse-bouche compared with the richer fare of the following courses. This, however, is perfect for an introductory piece, with those few moments of uncertainty in the second and fourth movements foreshadowing the tempestuous extremes to come later.

​And those extremes come quicker than may be expected, with Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. Announcing the sudden injection of theatricality to the proceedings, the orchestra swells to its full size as musicians spill from the wings and coloratura soprano Sara Hershkowitz joins them (making her SSO debut as well), clad in the most exquisite gown of silver sequins. Fashion aside, what followed was nothing less than vocal gymnastics — think Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria on acid — and a superlative performance of this most avant-garde of compositions. Compared with careful harmonies of Haydn previous, Ligeti’s work is far more textural, relishing in pure sonic experimentation. Props such as a two-litre bottle of Iron Bru, rustled newspapers, a bucket of fried chicken, and a phone arouse giggles and playful moments often sharply cut through with Ligeti’s trademark unsettling quality (fans of Kubrick films will be familiar with his work, especially its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut). If Haydn corresponds more to stereotypical preconceptions of orchestral music — a subtle if acquired taste — then Ligeti is the complete opposite end of this spectrum: mischievous, disquieting, structured chaos. In truth, Ligeti is a horror to write about; one is forced to resort to the most outlandish of paradoxes and oxymorons. It is atonal and dissonant yet wholly musical. Herschkowitz’s performance was nothing less than extraordinary. The intensity of Mysteries of the Macabre was followed by a welcome interval; a palette cleanser for the main event thereafter.

​From the extremes of the preceding pieces, the night settled finally on a balance between the two: a symphonic arrangement of a quintessentially theatrical work, with Wagner’s epic Ring cycle of operas stripped of vocals and boiled down from over 15 hours to just a little longer than one. Henk de Vlieger’s monumental task in this was superbly executed. There was a lustre in the orchestration; the textural experimentation of Ligeti matched with the melodic strength and harmony of Haydn. The first movement (Prelude) feels like a comfortable rise in early morning, slowly rousing the audience back into the music.  The standout, perhaps by its well-deserved fame, was the fifth movement: The Valkyries. There is power here, a vigour only such a full orchestra can provide. The brass thunders. In fact, hearing this symphonic rendition of Wagner’s theatrical masterworks elicited the cinematic quality of the music and made evident his immense influence on the orchestral score so familiar to most of us. Some movements sounded like Erich Korngold or Bernard Herrman and the sound of classic Hollywood — the continuity of 19th century Wagner with these artists working within the mid-20th century rendered explicit by stripping the operatic elements to their symphonic heart.

​The programme at the City Halls on the 28th November would serve as a model introduction for those sampling what may be an unfamiliar genre, and was a superlative evening for those already well acquainted with classical music. Having been recorded for BBC Radio 3, the broadcast of this evening is available to stream for the remainder of the year via BBC Sounds.

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