Friday, 15 January 2010

Magnificent Mozart and Sublime Strauss from Mackerras, Vlatkovic and the SCO

As he enters his 85th year, one always feels lucky catching Sir Charles Mackerras on the podium. Only last August illness robbed us of his last visit to Edinburgh to conduct Haydn's The Last Seven Words of our Saviour on the Cross. Then last week it was announced that, due to health reasons, Richard Armstrong would take his place recording Ariadne auf Naxos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Chandos's Opera in English series. Fortunately, he did not pull out of tonight and tomorrow's concerts as well. And though the years showed when walking to and from the podium, once seated there (as he remained throughout), with your eyes closed, you'd never have known an octogenarian was in charge.

The programme opened with Mozart's 35th symphony, Haffner. A choice no doubt prompted by their stellar success with this area of the repertoire both in concert and on disc, and also as a preemptive plug of their latest recording project. Whatever the reason, though, it was a fabulous curtain raiser. Mackerras's tempi were generally brisk, verging on breakneck in finale, but the orchestra held to them seemingly effortlessly, with crisp and tight playing. As always, when Mackerras does tackles this period with the SCO, horns and trumpets were on natural instruments, giving a nice additional colour to the sound. Perhaps most interesting was the beautiful slow movement; hardly slow, it might almost have been described as sprightly, and yet none of the beauty was lost in the process. Add to this Peter Whelan's superb bassoon work, and the generally excellent orchestral playing, and it made for something very special. Elsewhere, Mackerras made the most of the orchestra's formidable dynamic range, switching them instantly between extremes and thereby providing a wonderful sense of excitement and surprise in music that can too often feel overly familiar. So intimate, sometimes, did the relationship between conductor and orchestra seem, that it was almost as though he was directing a string quartet. Suffice to say, I cannot wait for the March 15th release date of the new CD (which features Nos. 29, 31 Paris, 32, 35 Haffner and 36 Linz).

Mozart was paired, for the rest of the evening, with Strauss. If you are wondering, as I was, whether this is a natural choice, Mackerras and the SCO surely proved so. They were joined by horn player Radovan Vlatkovic for Strauss's first concerto (he appeared with the SCO last year for both concerto and a chamber performances). He proved, if anything, an even more impressive soloist this time round (though perhaps helped by Strauss's writing being superior to Swensen's), giving an unmannered reading and having a nice tone and a pleasing lack of cracked or fluffed notes. There was something very engaging about his manner as, utterly absorbed by the music, he stepped and turned this way and that at the front of the stage, so much so that the first violins had to shift their seats back slightly during a few bars rest (which they managed without missing a beat). Mackerras took the orchestra to the very edge of the comfortable volume limit for the Queen's Hall without ever quite crossing it. Yet, as always, he remained the most sensitive of accompanists. Orchestrally it was a clean and generally light performance and not too overwrought as Strauss can sometimes be, instead beautifully fluid and lyrical. It is a work with which I need to acquaint myself better.

After the interval they rounded off the evening with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Arguably the finest orchestral playing of the night was on show here, yet at the same time they had plenty of fun with the score. There was, for example, wonderfully vivid characterisation in the Dance of the Tailors. Particularly impressive was how rich a sound was obtained, despite the significantly paired down strings. Above this was some exceptional solo playing, first and foremost from guest leader Bradley Creswick (moonlighting from the Northern Sinfonia), but cellist David Watkin and violist Jane Atkins also shone brightly. They carried off the finale with great aplomb, and a rare variety of percussion for an SCO concert, making the out of place waltz seem the most natural thing in the world.

All in all, it was a very fine evening. Those who reside in or near Glasgow should catch the repeat tomorrow. Everyone else should tune their wireless to Radio 3 on Tuesday evening to catch the broadcast of that performance (or visit the iplayer thereafter).

One final note, guest principal bass Nikita Naumov also impressed me. He seemed to have a degree of the drive and showmanship that make David Watkin such an engaging player to watch. Nicholas Bayley (who recently defected to the BBC SSO) left big shoes to fill, but the SCO could do an awful lot worse.

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