In my review of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's concerts, I mentioned that it was unfair to have to follow the Bavarians as even the best ensembles would pale somewhat in comparison. Similarly, Thierry Fischer's programme contained material that we have heard (or heard similar) from one of its finest exponents in the last year or so, with the same orchestra. However, given that, one cannot but compare. I should say up front though, that last Saturday's was by far the finest concert so far of the SCO season.
The second thing I'll say, before I get onto the business of actually reviewing the concert is that it was utter nonsense that the opening concert of Sibelius couldn't have fitted into the Queen's Hall, given the scale of the forces we had for this one. It felt a little odd for the first few stalls rows to be missing and the orchestra sitting there instead.
The programme opened with Beethoven's 5th symphony, which Mackerras played so brilliantly in his revelatory cycle of the symphonies at the 2006 festival, and played with such sheer passion and joy the year before by Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Fischer gave us a fast and furious reading which in its way was quite exciting. But there were problems. When compared with the detail that Mackerras drew from the score, the wonderful surprises therein as well as the quality of the textures he produced, there was a lack of focus and precision to Fischer's reading. And while there was no shortage of pace, there was also not the kind of momentum that there should be to this symphony.
There were other problems too. I'm not sure where they had rehearsed, and clearly they had been in a more appropriately sized hall on Friday when in Glasgow's City Halls, but where I was in the stalls it was a little loud. I'm overly sensitive to this, but there wasn't the dynamic range that there ought to be, where were the quiet contrasts? The SCO's horns were once again a weak link, fluffing more than their share of notes. And, perhaps most crucially, Fischer didn't really build the tension. Take, for example, the transition into the finale: he didn't really slow up all that much. This should be a moment of unbearable anticipation, but Fischer seemed almost over-eager to leap into the finale. It wasn't a bad reading, but it was not in the same class as the two great ones mentioned above.
The second half comprised Haydn's Harmoniemesse, not a work I know. And yet the competition is stiff here too as Mackerras opened the last SCO season with a performance of the Creation. An immediate plus is that this means the SCO Chorus, who are always wonderful to listen to, and Saturday was no exception. Again, it was certainly an exciting reading, but seemed a little rushed. There is some great beauty in Haydn's choral writing, but Fischer didn't seem all that interested in slowing to take it in. Tempo alone is not a key to drama and excitement.
The soloists were a bit of mixed bag. Both soprano Joanne Lunn and mezzo Tove Dahlberg were good, but tenor James Gilchrist and bass Stephan Loges were rather poor, indeed when the latter sang his first notes, the first of any singers, I worried it could be a trying experience. Fortunately he was not isolated that often.
In fairness, I should point out that the orchestra and chorus seem to genuinely enjoy working with Fischer, and he's clearly a nice guy (from the way he was chatting with them enjoying a drink at the bar afterwards, as we were with a friend in the chorus), but that doesn't a great conductor make.