Christian Zacharias's appearances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, both as conductor/soloist and with the chamber ensemble are always worth attending. Apparently I'm not the only one who feels that way. As I made my way to my seat, I passed someone who looked oddly familiar (though I was sure I didn't know him personally). Whilst not eavesdropping, his voice certainly carried, and he mentioned how fine Zacharias was: you must, he said to a member of his party, have heard some of his Mozart? He was referring, of course, to Zacharias's series of the twenty-one main concerti (i.e. omitting the first four, which Mozart reworked rather than composed, and the two and three piano concerti) with the SCO at the 2000 festival. Sadly I didn't hear them; maybe one day Radio 3 will dust them down out of the archives, or maybe EMI will actually undelete his excellent recorded cycle. As I left afterwards, I couldn't help but notice the man had left the envelope his tickets had come in, I glanced down to see the name James Waters written on it and suddenly it made sense: the former associate director of the International Festival.
So, how did Zacharias fair some nine years later? The first thing one notices, alone in this season's conductors, as far as I can recall, is that he eschews a podium, standing instead amongst the orchestra. It strikes you that for a ensemble this size, it probably isn't necessary anyway. He began with Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes. There was some wonderfully crisp playing from the orchestra and some nice moments. However, as is often the case with the composer, the piece didn't entirely grab me.
Better was to come in the form of Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major. The quartet of soloists was drawn from the orchestra: violinist Ruth Crouch (in a substitution for leader Christopher George), bassoonist Peter Whelan, oboist Robin Williams and, best of all, the superb David Watkin on cello. Or, at least, so I would normally say, for one of the nicest things was the chance to have a really good listen to Whelan, the orchestra's new principal - Ursula Leveaux's are big shoes indeed to fill, and he did so very nicely and with a lovely tone. There was fine playing, though, from all the soloists (if I did find Crouch's violin a little screechy for my taste). The work bounced along beautifully and the orchestral accompaniment was fine, though I would have preferred a balance that favoured the soloists slightly more.
Following the interval, the piano, its lid completely removed, had slid to the front of the stage. Zacharias took his seat, back to the audience, score open flat on top (though he never used it) for Weber's Konzertstuck. Zacharias's pianism was nothing short of breathtaking, and made one regret that it was employed for just this one work. More remarkable, though, was how good his control of the orchestra was as well; more often than not, it seems one of the two suffers when someone directs from the keyboard. Not so here. He would slide his right hand beautifully and effortlessly nearly the length the keyboard, then raise his left to tweak the orchestra, then back to the piano as if there was nothing to it. The quality of his phrasing was wonderful too. The SCO themselves played superbly. It's not a piece I know, but one with which I'd like to get better acquainted (fortunately I notice that the SCO themselves have recorded it with Charles Mackerras and pianist Nikolai Demidenko).
After that, the closing piece was a touch disappointing; not because it was bad, just because there wasn't really a higher place to go to. The piano was pushed back again and they played Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. This was nicely textured and featured some quite exquisite wind playing, but it was not quite the closer the concert should have had, that was the Weber.
Still, it remains one of the orchestra's finest performances this season. Waters agreed "I thought that would be worth coming to." he remarked loudly on his way out. I couldn't agree more. Zacharias returns in about a year to play Schubert's D845 sonata and the great C major symphony. For those who can't wait for that, he gives a solo recital at the festival.
Of course, for many, the concert has yet to happen: Glaswegians can catch Friday's repeat at City Halls, then they're in Aberdeen on Saturday and Inverness on Sunday.