Sunday, 4 May 2008

The SCO show they can still bring it: two overdue gems from Chicago and Handel

If there was a criticism of my reviews of the SCO this season, it might be that they haven't always been the most positive. What's more, as I complete my task of catching up, I notice that two of the finest performances have slipped through the net. I'm rather sorry for this, and intend to rectify it immediately with several paragraphs of much overdue praise.

First up is Handel's opera Theodora, in concert, from as recently as November! Given the state of Scottish Opera, it's all the finer to hear a strong concert performance of an opera. Conductor Kenneth Montgomery was new to me, but it's clear from his biography that he's steeped in opera. This is also clear from his conducting as he brings a good sense of drama, something that separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of opera conducting. He wasn't perfect: at times a little loud for the hall, but given the full chorus was present too, and that this clearly wanted to be in the Usher Hall, he may be forgiven. Indeed, the orchestra forced its way back into the stalls as far as I've ever seen it (I was very nearly breathing down Su-a Lee's neck as she superbly played the cello part of the continuo).

His pacing was fairly brisk, and this is no bad thing in a Handel opera, as it is all too easy for things to drag, yet there were moments when I would have liked him to savour a little more, as Mackerras did in Orlando.

The SCO chorus sang well, though in truth their diction was not quite what it can be, or usually has been in the recent past. Susan Gritton sang the title role well, if her voice was perhaps fractionally thin for my taste conversely I found David Wilson-Johnson as Valens was a little coarse. The only other reservation concerns Christine Rice who swept me away as Annio in La Clemenza di Tito. Her voice seems to have grown thicker and with a heavier vibrato than I care for. But in the quieter moments, of which there were plenty, I had few complaints.

It makes me wish for more of the same next year. And we very nearly are getting such: Handel's Alexander's Feast. Unfortunately I will not be attending. Richard Egarr is conducting from the harpsichord and given how lacklustre his Matthew Passion was, when he didn't have to worry about playing as well, I wouldn't touch this with a barge pole.

Only slightly more recently, another conductor of whom I've never heard joined the orchestra for what, on the face of it, was not the most promising programme ever: Okko Kamu was playing a mix of minor Sibelius works and Tchaikovsky. I like some Tckaikovsky, particularly the 4th to 6th symphonies, but I loath the piano concerto (except in Grainger's reduction for solo piano), on which basis I didn't hold out much hope for the violin, which I tend to like less as a solo instrument anyway. Kamu opened with Sibelius's Rakastava. Certainly it is not his greatest work, none the less, they played it very nicely and, better still, at sensible volumes for the Queen's Hall.

It shouldn't, but the first thing that strikes one about soloist Rachel Barton Pine is the slightly awkward manner in which she walks onto the stage and that she sits rather than stands, which is unusual for a violin soloist. It transpires that this is the result of a quite horrific accident. Fortunately it hasn't dented her playing skills, or, at least, if it did she must have been beyond astonishing before.

There was a real verve and personality to her playing, and a real energy too. Kamu supported her well. There was some wonderful playing, not least in the superb duet between violin and clarinet in the slow movement. I've recently railed against encores, but here they arguably eclipsed the concerto. She first played something with Scottish roots, which was nice enough, but this was followed by a quite superb blues Sweet Home Chicago. If you don't believe me, I suggest you check out this You Tube clip. Her CDs join the long list of those to be investigated. She also had the decency to tell us what the encores were, which I like.

After the interval came Sibelius's suite no.2 from The Tempest. Kamu and the SCO gave a magical reading: there was a wonderful weight to Prospero and beautiful lightness to Miranda and some superb, what I can only describe as pizzicato bowing (I'm sure there's a more accurate technical term) during the songs. Finally came Tchaikovsky's extremely odd suite no.4 Mozartiana. This is a celebration of Mozart, and Tchaikovsky re-orchestrating him. And the result is absolutely bizarre, sounding like Mozart and yet not in the least like Mozart. It was fascinating to hear and they played it well.

It is a great pity that neither Barton Pine or Kamu are returning to the SCO next season, though Barton Pine is joining the RSNO for the Bruch concerto in October. I'll be there (assuming the Usher Hall is open).

The Adventurous SCO

Those following my series on the SCO's 2007/8 season may, with some justification, complain that I have, thus far, completely ignored the Adventurer strand, which focuses on new music. Those same people are entitled to further confusion since there are many posts here which are positive about new compositions, so I'm clearly not turning my nose up at them because I don't think they're going to be tuneful.

So, what has happened? I seem to have managed to miss the first three. For one it clashed with a production of Salad Days, which frankly trumped Elts. Annoyingly, Oliver Knussen (whom I will hear at Aldeburgh next month) fell by the wayside on December 15th as I had a rather nasty bug and didn't feel up to going out. The audience should probably be grateful for my restraint. Then, on 19th January, an old and dear friend held his stag do and, much as I would have liked to review Garry Walker's concert, I think Andy would have been fully justified in not speaking to me again. Fortunately, no such conflict or mishap occurred on Thursday 10th April. John Storgards conducted the orchestra in a programme of MacRae, Hallgrimsson and Strauss.

First up was MacRae's Birches, an SCO commission. I've encountered MacRae's music only once before, in the 2006 Festival during new opera The Assassin Tree. More so than then, I found his composition a bit of the whir-plonk school and only very occassionally evocative of trees in the way his note suggested it should be: at the start he nicely captured a wind-in-the-trees feeling. But, in general, I found it a rather forgettable piece.

Fortunately the Hallgrimsson was much better. A co-commission with the Oslo Philharmonic and the Iceland Symphony, it was his cello concerto and the excellent Truls Mork was on hand to play it. The orchestration was very full, and yet it never felt silly in the kitchen sink sense that can so often happen in such circumstances, nothing felt like it was included simply for the sake of it. There was some excellent playing, the basses and brass in the opening particularly. Mork was superb, especially in the quieter moments. Indeed, here Storgards deserves praise: volume wasn't the ghost of a problem as it so often has been. The single movement piece developed and flowed organically. Almost immediately I wanted to hear it again. I sincerely hope we do not have to wait too long for a recording. I look forward to Mork's return for less contemporary fare in October.

I'm not, unlike my brother, the biggest fan of Strauss, but the evening's final work made me question why: Strauss's Metamorphosen. Storgards led it well as it developed and morphed organically, indeed, it was in that respect an excellent pairing for the Hallgrimsson. The strings of the SCO were at their finest. In short it was a hypnotic and beautiful experience. I have a recording from Furtwangler that I'm clearly going to have to spin more often.

All in all, a very fine concert, which makes me doubly sorry I've missed so many, hopefully events won't get in the way of the three I've booked for next year (I'm skipping Elts again).

A call to arms: The Society for the Prevention of Inappropriate Encores (and stupid programme notes)

I don't know who first thought up the idea of the encore, a short piece played after the concert programme has ended. Some people clearly like them, I almost never do. Their wrongness was highlighted in a recent concert from Swensen and the SCO where violinist Henning Kraggerud seemed to think that it was possible to find an appropriate encore for the Brahms concerto. If it is, he hasn't identified it.

The other chief complaint about this concert concerns the calibre of the programme notes. I increasingly wonder why I fork out £2 for these. I suppose they're useful for making notes and reminding me of the personnel, but that is online and a pad would surely be more cost-effective. In his note to the first piece Conrad Wilson, moonlighting from his job as the Scotsman's missable music critic, he tells us:

"Dvorak's father and grandfather were village butchers, and he, too, might have joined the family trade, thereby depriving us of the 'New World' Symphony and the greatest of all cello concertos."

The emphasis is mine, added so that nobody thinks I'm complaining about the punctuation. It always irks me when anyone describes anything as the greatest blank. There are many great cello concertos, what possible basis is there for judging which of the Elgar and the Dvorak is the greater. Both are incredible, let us leave it at that. But, since Conrad Wilson wasn't playing, it seems wrong to waste more time on him.

The Dvorak reference can in the note to his serenade for strings, op.22. The orchestra played it well, though I would have liked a more focussed reading in the slower moments. Given the size of the ensemble for this, one has to question the necessity for a conductor, the more so given this ensemble's ability without one. Applause followed the scherzo. I must confess that through ignorance, in a manner very unlike me, I joined it, I had quite lost count of the movements. This was followed by the serenade for winds, op.44. The playing here was taut and particularly fine. Cellist David Watkin was on superb form as the sole non-wind. However, I couldn't help noticing that the bassoons were a cut above what they've been lately. Now, the SCO's wind section is always good, and well serviced to boot, but they have suffered a little of late. Glancing at the first bassoonist I thought here was a familiar face. A check of the programme at the interval confirmed that this was indeed Ursula Leveaux, whose playing has been sorely missed. Sadly, those more in the know than me confirm that she was just standing in and has not rejoined the orchestra. Pitty.

I arrived in Edinburgh pretty well just just as Joseph Swensen was leaving as SCO as principal conductor. One of the things that has intrigued me was that he often performed (and appears on recordings) as both soloist and conductor, he also plays the violin. However, he did not choose to do so with the Brahms concerto. This may, though, have contributed to the fact that he seemed not to be going for the same interpretation as Henning Kraggerud, the evening's actual soloist. Only at the very end did they seem to meet up, and then only because they were both very loud, more than anything else. Indeed, as with so much else this season, too loud was a complaint. I think the Brahms concerto calls for a measure of weight and authority but he did not display any. The SCO horns, who are making less fluffs these days than they were a couple of years ago, backslid a little, with some particularly mumbled work in the opening.

Kraggerud then played an encore, I neither knew nor cared what it was. The power of the close of that concerto is ruined by attempting one. What next, an encore to Mahler's 8th or Wagner's Ring? The other patrons didn't seem to share my view, and perhaps nobody else does, but if you do, let's start a campaign.

The Brahms was accompanied by a similarly stupid programme note to Wilson's effort. This, by Gerald Larner, stated:

"As Joachim well knew, the test of a great concerto is not how brilliant the solo part is but how much more inspired the soloist seems to be than the orchestra behind him."

Well, each to their own, but of the many concertos I know and love, I can't think of any I would apply this statement to. Particular, say, the Brahms first concerto where I think a lot of the genius lies in the threat of the orchestra overwhelming the soloist but not doing so (assuming it's played well). But is the piano part of the Emperor really more inspired than the orchestral writing? Perhaps it depends on the conductor, but when you have a superb accompanist, such as Mackerras, it feels no less inspired.

A note to Louis Langree: you're not auditioning for a role in Spinal Tap

These go to eleven.

So spake Nigel Tufnel in the superb fake-rockumentary This is Spinal Tap. He was boasting as to how his amplifiers were so much better than those of many other bands because they went only went up to ten whereas his did eleven, and that was clearly louder. Loudness was, in Tufnel's world, king. It has sometimes seemed that way in many of the SCO's concerts this year, where the conductor hasn't balanced his forces properly considering he is in the confines of the (small) Queen's Hall. Louis Langree, who performed last night, was probably the worst offender to date.

And this is a shame, because both the calibre of the playing, and the readings in most other respects, were excellent. He led off with Beethoven's Leonore overture no.2, which is on a fairly moderate scale when set next to some of the others, not that one would have known that. The balance of the strings and the winds (which were often a little overwhelmed) wasn't perfect either, and owed something both the volume and my seating position. Other than noise levels, my main reservation concerned the offstage trumpet. It wasn't badly played or anything, but somehow the balance between it and the orchestra seemed unremarkable, which is surely not the reason for placing it offstage. Where's Donald Runnicles when you need him?

The orchestra was then joined by Renaud Capucon on violin (of whom I have on a good recording of the Mendelssohn and Schumann concertos with Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra) and Antoine Tamestit on viola for Mozart's sinfonia concertante K364, which I know much less well than K297. Surprisingly, perhaps, given his biography lists him as director of the Mostly Mozart festival in New York since 2002, this was the sole work for which Langree chose to conductor from the score. The orchestral playing was particularly beautiful and delicate here and, unlike in the Beethoven, volume was not an issue. At first the two soloists seemed a little rigid but they loosened up and as the work progressed it became more compelling. I have a recording (from Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra), which I must investigate further. By the finale any doubts were a distant memory. The two soloists played an encore, which for once fitted. Mozart did write two duos for violin and viola (K423 and 424) and I suspect it was something from one of these. Whatever it may have been though, it was lovely. Tamestit and Capucon have a recording of the sinfonia concetante on the way from Virgin, also with the SCO, one worth looking out for.

After the interval the knob was right back up to eleven, if not beyond, for Schumann's wonderful fourth symphony (in, the programme informed us, its final 1851 version, but given the Penguin Guide lists no alternative versions I wonder if this is an artificial distinction, unlike, say with Bruckner symphonies). The volume was a shame, given this was an absolutely thrilling and joyful reading. My only reservation would be that the slow movement could, perhaps, have been a little more so. The orchestra played superbly, the more so given the extremely high speeds Langree called for (especially in the finale); that the orchestra held so clearly together at these times is a testament to their skill. Something gave violinists Zoe Beyers and Vicky Sayles the giggles a few minutes before the end (though they held it in well). If either of them, or anyone else in the know, is reading this, I'm curious to know what it was.

Scottish Chamber Roundup

For the second in my series of posts catching up with reviews of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's work, I turn my attention to what, for me, has been the most consistently satisfying strand of their concert season: the series of chamber concerts given by what is referred to in the season brochure as the SCO Ensemble. What this means in practice is ad hoc assemblies of members of the orchestra, often the principals, but often not. The quality of these performances makes it all the sadder that there are only three next season as opposed to four, perhaps the management can explain this bizarre decision; I cannot.

I'm not so behind with these as with some other concerts, the earliest dates from Sunday March 2nd and featured Mozart's trio in E flat Kegelstatt (or skittle) and Schubert's octet. The Mozart was the less successful of the two. An odd scoring of piano, clarinet and viola, this was very much a scratch trio and it felt it. Caroline Henbest on viola and Barnaby Robson on clarinet (it seems the orchestra's superb Maximiliano Martin was indisposed) were joined by Peter Evans on piano. Their playing was perfectly decent but it wasn't apparent who, if anyone, was actually leading the trio and there seemed to be a lack of communication between them.

Things fared much better for the octet as Henbest and Robson were joined by the orchestra's leader Christopher George and Claire Sterling on violin, David Watkin on cello, Graham Mitchell on bass, Guillermo Salcedo on bassoon and Gavin Edwards on horn. From the first note this was more like it. There was clear leadership and clear communication between the players, and it was apparent in the sound, the ensemble played clearly with a single voice in the way only the best chamber groups manage. It was a vibrant reading of a work I little know, David Watkin's contribution was, as ever, particularly dynamic.

A month later, and a few days after a successful orchestral concert, Christian Zacharias returned for an almost all Mozart chamber programme. He kicked things off with solo piano work and the variations on a minuet by Duport K573. His playing was poetic and with beautiful delicacy. Indeed, more impressive than had been the case in the Beethoven concerto. He has recorded the sonatas and I think I may need to investigate them.

This was followed by Reger's serenade in G op.141a, a new work to me. Scored for violin, viola and flute, this was superbly played by Christopher George, Jane Atkins and Alison Mitchell respectively. Following the interval was more Mozart and the quartet K370 for oboe, violin, viola and cello. George and Atkins were joined by Robin Williams on oboe and David Watkin on cello. At first I was a little disappointed that we were not getting Zacharias for more of the programme, but the playing soon dispensed with such doubts. A fine piece and finely played, and one with which I need to become better acquainted.

Finally, Zacharias returned to the stage for Mozart's piano quartet K478, joined by Watkin, George and Atkins. This was possibly the most compelling and cohesive performance of the afternoon. The four came together much better than such scratch ensembles often do. I notice that Paul Lewis has recorded this for Hyperion, something else to add to the to be listened to shelf, I think.

The final chamber concert came only yesterday, and on the odd time of Saturday morning. Indeed, since the SCO were also playing an evening concert it almost felt like the festival. This was the SCO's subscriber concert - free to any who donate or get a season ticket (a not particular select group given it seemed fuller than many of the chamber concerts).

The first work was Prokofiev's sonata for two violins, and engagingly played by Zoe Beyers and Rosenna East. I enjoyed it very much, though am unable to judge the calibre of the performance more than that, since it was my first hearing of the work. This was followed by Elgar's piano quintet (again unknown to me) with the addition of Brian Schiele on viola, Su-a Lee on cello and Alasdair Beatson on piano. Schiele gave a brief but interesting introduction, setting the composition into the context of the absence for several years (due to the Great War) of the Three Choirs festival and noting Elgar's description of the first movement as "ghostly stuff", though I'm not sure I really heard that. At first I thought the orchestra's streak of having more delicate pianists for the chamber series was being maintained, but as the work progressed I found Beatson slightly heavy-handed and not quite in balance. Otherwise, though, it was superbly played.

All in all, as I said at the start, the most consistently satisfying series. Of course, that may be because, as will be apparent to anyone who's read this far, these are works I know much less well, if at all, than the orchestral fare, and probably that makes me easier to please.

BBC Proms 2008

Well, that other minor arts festival, the BBC Proms, has recently announced its programme for 2008, and especially given the presence of one Donald Runnicles there is infinitely greater than in Edinburgh (one concert versus none), it deserves a mention for that at least.

Actually, I think this is the most compelling programme in my recent memory. I was never much of a fan of Kenyon and had serious concerns as to Roger Wright's abilities to programme the festival. Still, it seems very interesting. There seem to be two complaints most loudly on the BBC message boards: no Bruckner (Britten fans also feel slighted aggrieved) and from some people who clearly don't recognise the NY and Chicago orchestras when they see them, that there aren't many big name bands. The second is patently nonsense, as is the first, though less obviously so. It's a bit refreshing not to have endless performances of the Bruckner 4, 7, 8 and 9. It will be all the sweeter when it returns. Britten is possibly more of an issue, but staged opera and the War Requiem notwithstanding, a lot of his compositions are better suited to a smaller hall. However, I expect we can see a major celebration of his work in a couple of years time when his centenary comes round (if not, you will hear me complain then).

As usual all Proms are broadcast live on Radio 3, available on listen again (if you can stomach the poor sound quality, when the BBC will address this laughable situation I don't know) and some on TV, this year more spread out than previously, when the broadcasts have been concentrated in the opening and closing weeks. It's a shame that all are not televised. Clearly this is an issue of cost, and yet given all the rubbish the BBC turns out, there is surely enough cash from the licence fees of those of us who care about culture to do something. It would be the best riposte to Margaret Hodge's silly, and to some extent mis-reported comments. When we can expect a cultured culture secretary I don't know.

So, what will I me making an extra effort for. Well, owing to extra commitments up here in August, there will be nothing on the scale of last summer's mad dash down for Gotterdammerung. For me, the first noteworthy is Prom 2. Veteran specialist in British music Vernon Handley makes a welcome return with the BBCSO in a programme that includes some Bax and Elgar's violin concerto though, wrongly, the programme hits the headlines more for the presence of one Nigel Kennedy. I'll be listening for Tod. Prom 6 features the ongoing strand of Messiaen celebrations as well as the organ. Olivier Latry plays L'ascension and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and is then joined by the Ochestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Chung for Saint-Saens' organ symphony. Prom 7 features Roger Norrington and so should be avoided. On Saturday 26th July, Prom 12 brings Thomas Ades and the CBSO to play a programme that includes his recent commission Tevot, which was premiered by the BPO not too long ago. Prom 13, into which I will probably not be tuning, brings the Dr Who Prom: a mix of music from the series and other stuff, such as The Ride of the Valkyries, Jupiter from Holst's Planets and Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Not my cup of tea, but if someone listens to the Copeland who wouldn't otherwise, then job well done. I don't have the problem with it that some people appear to.

Prom 14 is worth a listen though: Messiaen's La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ. This mighty work is brought by Fischer and the BBCNOW. Prom 19, on Friday 1st August, brings Paul Lewis, and better yet in Beethoven's 4th piano concerto (apparently he is to record the concerti, I'm not sure with whom, Makerras and the SCO would be ideal though). In my view one of the finest players of Beethoven around meaning that this concert, with the RLPO and Petrenko, should be a treat. Things are better still in Prom 23. Donald Runnicles gives Das Lied von der Erde and Beethoven's first symphony. He is joined by the BBC Scottish and the originally planned soloists from last week's Glasgow concert.

Prom 38, on Thursday 14th August, is an absolute must: Barenboim brings the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This mix of Arab and Israeli children play with the most incredible passion, and to a remarkably high standard for a youth orchestra. They will bring works by Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms' 4th symphony, not to mention a late night Prom of Boulez and Stravinsky. Things come thick and fast as the next night Boulez himself joins the BBCSO for an all Janacek programme including the Glagolitic Mass. And on the Saturday, the man who should have been conducting that programme too, Sir Charles Mackerras, appears with the OAE to perform Handel's Belshazzar for Prom 41. On the Sunday Jennifer Bate, whose survey of the Messiaen organ works I have greatly enjoyed, plays some of them.

More Janacek, one of the chief reasons I am impressed by the programme, comes in Prom 47 from Belholavek and the BBCSO. Mistakenly, though, he chooses to pair Osud with Dvorak's slavonic dances op.46. Both works are fine, but Janacek's 80 minute single act opera needs no partner, especially just for the sake of filling up the programme.

Proms 57 and 58 bring a visit from Maazel and NYPO, the programme isn't the most inspiring but I always like to hear Tchaikovsky's 4th and Gershwin's piano concerto should be interesting. Prom 62 on 1st September brings Colin Davis with Sibelius, enough in itself to get my radio tuned in, but more so with the superb Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the finest youth orchestra I've ever heard (helped by the fact that they tend to be older than most). Proms 64 and 65 feature the Berlin Philharmonic with Rattle and programmes including Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, Shostakovich's 10th and Brahms' 3rd.

The crown jewel of the Messiaen celebrations comes on Sunday 7th with a concert performance from Netherlands Opera of Saint Francis of Assisi. This vast work is rather special, and if I wasn't out of the country for that date, I might be a little annoyed that I'd made arrangements to go to Amsterdam to see it staged.

My last highlight concerns the two visits for Proms 71 and 72 of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This musical titan is led by their new principal conductor Bernard Haitink. Unfortunately he has chosen Mahler 6, which is not one of that composer's works in which he excels (3 or 9 would have been better bets), and though the new Chicago recording may yet turn my view around, what little I have listened to does not indicate this will be the case. The other problem is that the soloist for Mozart's K491 concerto in Prom 72 is Murray Perahia, whose survey of the concertos on Sony is one of the most overrated discs I've come across.

Lastly, Roger Norrington is doing the last night, as if I needed another reason not to pay any attention to it.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Three Director's Notes

I've managed to get slightly behind in my series covering (or rather, intending to cover, since for unavoidable reasons I've missed several now) the SCO's 2007/8 season. This post will, therefore, cover slightly more than three notes, namely the second, third and fourth concerts in the Director's Notes series, so named because the conductor is also the soloist (or a member of the orchestra). The first instalment, Mustonen, didn't exactly meet with my approval. Fortunately, nothing that followed was that bad, and much of it was actually very good.

Not the second concert though. I had already experienced Piotr Anderszewski's pianism. He seems to be getting rave reviews in certain circles; I dissent. But the first piece on the programme on 5th March had nothing whatever to do with him, but instead with a member of the orchestra whose praises I've frequently sung on these pages: principal cellist David Watkin. He directed the orchestra in Mozart's 21st symphony. In some respects this was poor timing, following as it did just one week after Mackerras's tour de force with similar repertoire. But he did a fine job, choosing broader tempi than might have been selected by the Australian. The orchestra played well for him, if not quite so finely as for Mackerras. All in all, though, it was a most enjoyable start.

Up next was, frustratingly, Haydn's piano concerto in D major. Why frustrating? After all, it's a work that is new to me, and that's always nice. Well, the Perth programme a day earlier had Mozart's concerto K488 instead, one of my absolute favourites. Then again, given how much I didn't appreciate Anderszewski's previous treatment of a Mozart concerto, that may have been just as well. Actually, he did an impressive job as far as conducting the orchestra was concerned, rather making me wish he had programmed a Haydn symphony instead. Unfortunately, the moment the piano entered there was the thumping. It's something I don't care for at the best of times, but in this sort of classical repertoire it isn't even forgivable in the way in might be with Tchaikovsky or Liszt. His phrasing is, in my view, rather pedestrian to boot. I was left with the strong impression that he would do well to give up his day job for the baton. In the second movement he did show some delicacy, but still the thumping lurked. To make matters worse it was joined by annoying, groaning, nasal vocalisations. The finale was little more than an depressing orgy of thumping.

For the finale, Beethoven's first (or C major, in case you're going to get pedantic about the numbering) concerto. The more shocking given this orchestra's pedigree in Beethoven, his performance made me drop any notion of his conducting skills. A quiet, clipped start yielded to excessive forte, or more, and thumping galore. I love the movement, making it the more disappointing. The largo was better, and as with the Haydn, Anderszewski found some delicacy, but always with such banal playing and always the tendency to pound the keys where greater pianists massage them. The finale was too loud orchestrally, matching the bang, bang, bang at the piano.

He played an encore. I don't know what it was, and to be honest, I didn't care that much. I don't like encores as a rule, I think they rarely add anything to a concert. I've never known Charles Mackerras to play one, artists would do well to take a leaf out of his book.

Finer things were in store when, a month later, we were joined by Christian Zacharias, something I had been looking forward to since the season brochure appeared last spring. Here is a pianist who appreciates delicacy, and who is also a seasoned conductor: I have fond memories of his visit with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra to the festival several years ago. His programme was of traditional form, overture, concerto, symphony, but well executed. He began with Beethoven's Coriolan. The opening phrases came sharply, almost like sneezes, in a good way, and he held is pauses to great effect. There was the slightly edgy tone to the strings that I think can suit Beethoven well. The main theme was taken briskly with no lack of excitement, drama and, if I'm honest, rather more volume than is necessary in the Queen's Hall.

Then came Beethoven's second concerto, probably my least favourite of the five. The sound of the orchestra was much smoother here. He had sensibly positioned the piano facing into the orchestra with the lid removed, doubtless to direct the orchestra better. However, here was Beethoven playing not nearly so exciting as in the overture, though in fairness it is a less dramatic work. His reading was not without the odd note, but there was a wonderful delicacy to his playing of the sort that has been absent this season. It was a solid performance without being a great or especially individualistic one.

The finale to this all-Beethoven programme came with the 6th symphony, again, probably my least favourite. The first too movements have often the quality of wallpaper music unless very well played and as a whole it rarely grabs me. Zacharias made a fair stab at it. Again the tones were smooth, and he played the first movement in a wonderful throbbing, pulsing and sweeping manner, injecting it with an interest too often absent. The first thing that struck me in the andante was that the first violins sounded extremely odd, and I couldn't put my finger on why, eventually I noticed something clipped onto their bridges, which turned out to be a mute. Now, while I don't love the symphony I have many recordings and have heard it in concert a number of times and I've never spotted this before, or since. A bit of googling doesn't find much support either, and I'm told it isn't in the score. I'd like to hear it again, as I was distracted by wondering what on earth was going on. Still, it did make a dull movement interesting. The allegro was solid, but the winds could have been better (as good as they were at the 2006 Festival when they performed this for Mackerras, say; of course, back then Ursula Leveaux was still principal bassoon, and sonically the orchestra are poorer without her). I can't quite believe I'm making this complaint, but the bassoons were actually a bit too prominent. Yes, often they are swamped, but by the same token they need to be a touch ethereal. The fourth movement thunderstorm suffered in two respects: first, it was much too loud, and second it lacked the textures that so vividly captured the elements with Mackerras. He didn't quite bring the finale off either, which again was too loud. I'm going to change my seat next year, as I think part of the problem is being up too close, but there have been conductors who've balanced volume better in this hall, and I had expected better from Zacharias. I wonder if I'm alone in this, since I couldn't help but notice that David Watkin had a decibel meter attached to the collar of his jacket. All in all, though, the finest instalment to date.

For Director's Notes IV I had to make the trip out to Glasgow, since the BBC Scottish had inconsiderately booked someone called Donald Runnicles on the Edinburgh night, something I omitted to notice when buying my tickets, and so ended up with a spare that had to be given away. Still, it meant the City Halls, which in turn meant fine sightlines, fine sound and no excess volume problem. Or so I thought. Despite being at the front row of the gallery, where seats are not particular cheap, the rail to stop people on the stairs falling down into the stalls completely blocked my view of most of the stage. I'm not tight-fisted, but I do object to paying the top ticket price for what is a restricted view seat. Fortunately, the person next to me didn't show up, otherwise I would have had to lean close enough to get rather friendlier than I generally like with complete strangers. I will be contacting the hall's management on this score though (annoyingly, as I write this, I can't find a note of the exact number in order to forewarn anyone who may be reading this). To make matters worse, having asked to be keyboard side had done me no good. In a bizarre decision, Stephen Kovacevich, the evening's soloist/director, had angled the piano so his back was to the violins and so he was mainly facing the audience. The third disappointment was a poorly behaved audience, particularly in contrast to the previous evening with Runnicles when someone rustling a bag had gained a dozen glances severe enough to kill. Here people talked, not just whispered, talked, and glances did little to deter them.

In a last minute order change he moved the concerto to the top. It was Mozart's K503. I'm sure his position relative to the band helps explain their uncharacteristically woolly sound. The piano was horribly steely to match, sounding just on the verge of being out of tune. Both orchestra and soloist improved as the piece progressed, and I wondered whether the room's temperature might be to blame for some of it, but the improvement wasn't enough to rescue the piece. The bassoon was not too impressive, the more so after a recent concert where Ursula returned. Kovacevich seemed always to play, never conducting at the same time, in the way that the best who do both roles can. And it showed, or rather sounded.

A long evening was in prospect. But I hadn't reckoned on Mozart's 35th Haffner symphony. This was much more like it. Taut playing, and yet with great attention to detail. True, this was no Mackerras reading, in particular it lacked some of the intricacies of the score which he would have brought out, but it was certainly the next best thing, though the andante could probably have been more so. But, as a whole joyfully played, with wonderfully clipped playing, it more than made up for the concerto.

He closed with Beethoven's fourth symphony, a favourite of mine, and this too was excellent. He brought a good mix of richness and the rough edge which, I have already mentioned, I like in Beethoven. He displayed a wonderful delicacy and lightness of touch, not to mention force as the main theme broke through in the first movement, which was full of excitement and drama. The wind playing was particularly fine here too. He judged the adagio to near perfection but lost his grip somewhat in the third movement which, in his hands, seemed a little cluttered. The finale was thrilling though.

All in all, a most enjoyable conclusion to an, at best, mixed series. It doesn't surprise me terribly that this has not been repeated. Pianists who excel at playing and conducting, and at the same time, are like gold dust. And, in honesty, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.