Monday 10 March 2008

Mackerras conducts Mozart (but not the recordings you are probably expecting)

I bought this disc a little by accident. A week or two ago I acquired Mackerras's new recording of Mozart's final four symphonies with the SCO (which, though not the subject of this post, is absolutely superb). However, I've been a little annoyed by the fact that almost no review bothered to make serious comparison with his earlier Prague Chamber Orchestra recordings (which formed a complete cycle, also highly recommendable). Then, the weekend before last, on Radio 3's CD Review, Andrew McGregor informed us that Mackerras was recording some of these works for the 3rd time, earlier recordings I was unaware of (and which, when they arrive, may form part of a post along with the new ones and the Prague ones). However, while searching Amazon for all things Mozart and Mackerras, I came across these horn concerti, of which I was already dimly aware, and took the punt.

I knew nothing of Ruske and so, perhaps unusually for a concerto recording, I was buying on the strength of conductor and orchestra (who have shown their Mozart pedigree time and again in their series of opera recordings and their piano concerti with Brendel). I am glad I did. On the basis of Wednesday evening's first listen, this is one of the finest recordings I've heard and seems likely to be one that gets played a great deal in the future.

As one would expect, the SCO are on fine form under Mackerras, exemplary, one might say. One of his many talents is that he is a very sensitive accompanist and, while the orchestral playing is beautiful and sparkles throughout, Mackerras never dominates his soloist. Speeds are brisk, but never feel rushed.

But what of Ruske? An American who rose to be principal horn of the excellent Cleveland Orchestra at the age of twenty and of whom I'd never before heard. I'm moved to question why not. His phrasing is superb and he gets a lovely tone.

The recordings I own for comparison are the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (where solo duties are divided between orchestra members William Purvis and David Jolley), Alan Civil with Klemperer and the Philharmonia, and Ab Koster with Burno Weil and Tafelmusik (the later being a period instrument/natural horn effort). This last recording, despite being the first I owned, is actually the one I play least: I prefer these works on modern instruments, and Weil not nearly as good an accompanist as either Klemperer or the Orpheus.

The Orpheus (an interesting group, in that they play without a conductor) are much finer - taut playing, but with somewhat clipped phrasing and tones and colours not as impressive as those Mackerras coaxes from the SCO and they do not match his skill as an accompanist. Similarly the soloists, though creditable, are not on a par with Ruske: more notes come closer to being fluffed.

So, to Civil. He was one of the finest horn players of his generation (or, indeed, any) alongside Barry Tuckwell. (For your trivia question, what was probably the only occasion they performed together in the same orchestra? The answer links to another name in this post.) His phrasing and the quality of his playing is simply superb. Klemperer is a fine accompanist and the Philharmonia feel surprisingly spry under him. There is none of the weight and stodginess one might have expected from his studio Beethoven recordings of the same period. Between Ruske and Civil, the latter is probably the finer player, but I think Mackerras and the SCO provide a more engaging support. I also think I prefer their faster, more historically informed approach to the works (but this is very much a matter of personal taste).

Ruske and Mackerras have one final advantage and a curiosity. As with many recordings they include the Rondo K371, but there is also the fragment K494a (which, like most such fragments, ends disappointingly mid-flow). The gem is a full orchestration of Flanders and Swann's magnificent Ill Wind (set to the rondo finale of K495 "I once had a whim which I had to obey...." and so on). Mackerras, with his G&S pedigree plays this just right and Richard Stuart sings well, if not having quite the characterisation of Michael Flanders. A must for Flanders and Swann fans too, then.

Alongside Civil, this is one to return to again and again (my preference is just for the slightly more vital reading of Ruske and Mackerras, but I wouldn't want to be without either, it is also worth noting that the quality of the Telarc recording is probably better than EMI's effort for Civil, which is slightly harsh).

P.S. The answer to your trivia question is that Civil and Tuckwell appear together on Mackerras's recording of the original wind version of Handel's Firework music. Recorded in April 1959 with what was probably one of the odder scratch orchestras in recording history. Finding 26 oboes, 14 bassoons, 4 contra-bassoons, 2 serpents, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, 3 pairs of timpani and 6 side drums cannot be easy at the best of times. So it was that at 11 p.m. on April 13th, almost all of the top professional wind players mustered, some still in evening dress from their performances that night, at St Gabriel's Church for a recording that ran until 2.30 a.m. the next morning. Also of note, the only woman in that orchestra was Evelyn Rothwell (or Lady Barbirolli as she was better known). This historic document, and wonderful recording to boot, is available on Testament.

Saturday 1 March 2008

That other Scottish Chamber Orchestra

There are two Scottish Chamber Orchestras. There is the SCO that has been present at every concert so far this season, a vibrant and talented group, and there is the SCO that was present in the Queen's Hall on Thursday evening, the SCO that shows up when Charles Mackerras is in town. Of course, it isn't true that they have been of uniform standard thus far, they have achieved better results with some conductors than others (Bruggen and Montgomery stand out as the finest examples, and at the other end of the spectrum are the likes of Mustonen against whose onslaught even the SCO's resilience is no match), but Thursday was different. On Thursday they really did feel like a whole other orchestra. There seemed more concentration as David Watkin, principal cellist, hunched forward like a driver with his nose to the windscreen, intent on missing nothing. The tones somehow richer, the precision somehow greater: it seemed to be a wholly different sound. And what a sound.

It has been far, far too long since we've heard Mackerras at the helm of the SCO, not since Haydn's Creation, the opening concert of the 2006/7 season. It could be argued that his absence from last year's festival was an even greater omission that that of Donald Runnicles. He was to have performed about a year ago, in a programme of Mozart's final three symphonies that formed the basis of his recent recording of the final four on Linn Records, but had to cancel. His presence in Australia in the autumn ruled out the opening concert this season, again a great shame (doubly so as we had to make do with Elts). Both the audience and the orchestra both seemed glad to have him back for this all Mozart programme.

The programme opened with Mozart's Sunday Vespers. It isn't a work I know, but from the opening chords the playing was something else. There was some fine singing too, particularly from the SCO's excellent chorus (though they were responsible for my one minor reservation of the evening). Edinburgh's Festival Chorus has a huge problem: not enough men. This was slightly less severe this last year, but often the tenors and bases are sufficiently underpowered or aged that it mars the results. The SCO have tended to be beyond reproach, so I sincerely hope it isn't a sign of times to come that the men had the odd ropey moment. They were joined by a quarter of soloists: soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Anna Stephany, tenor Timothy Robinson and bass James Rutherford. Crowe was especially fine, but all of them were impressive. A sign of how good is that within a few bars I had given up and wasn't bothering to follow the text, the performance was too captivating for that.

Things were finer still in the second piece, his motet Exsultate, jubilate. The chorus remained in their seats as riveted as we were to Crowe's wonderful singing. The beaming grin on her face throughout a testament to the sheer joy that pervaded her reading. She sang without a text, and beneath her Mackerras provided sensitive accompaniment, the orchestra playing sublimely. They were justly well received. It would be wonderful if they recorded this.

Just before things got under way, after the standard mobile phone announcement, came a second that the order would change from the programme: instead of splitting the choral works, we would now get the Prague symphony (No.38) in isolation in the second half. This was as sensible as Brendel recently putting the Schubert D960 on its own. Anyone under the impression that the Prague is a poorer brother to the titans that are 40 and 41 has clearly never heard Mackerras play it. After a slowish, tense start the main theme emerges, and for a moment it seemed he was going to give us a reading gentle lyricism, rather out of character. Then came a serious of sharp chords, furiously punctuated by timpanist Caroline Garden shattering that notion. This would be a thrilling reading. Mackerras seemed to observe all repeats, perhaps making this a slightly weightier work than it can be. He exhibited a control and produced a quality of playing that was stunning. No matter what demands he made, the orchestra kept together perfectly, something that hasn't been the case for for all their concerts this season. It's one of Mozart's longer movements (indeed, from the timings on his complete Prague Chamber Orchestra recordings on Telarc, it is the longest by nearly three minutes) and yet I didn't want it to end. But end it did, giving way to a beautifully played slow movement, yet one in which tension and excitement always lurked. The finale was as exciting as the opening and as finely played. There were none of the flaws that have marked many interpretations this season: there was no assumption that simply volume or pace made for excitement. Indeed, with large forces, he did not at all overwhelm a the small hall. Mackerras, and the orchestra, got a deservedly rich reception. And then he showed some sense. He knew that the Prague needed nothing to follow it. Certainly, he could have got away with an encore, but there was no need (indeed, I don't think I've ever heard him play one), and quite right too. I had the 38th swimming in my head for the rest of the evening, nothing to displace it. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. As I write this I'm listening to the recent CD. It's very fine, and should be bought by everyone, but exceptional though it is, it is a pale shadow of the live treat.

I said at the start that there are two SCOs. In truth it is more of a spectrum, and while we've had other decent performances this year, none of them have strayed into this league. Of course, the SCO is not going to locate a principle conductor who will deliver Mackerras's results on a regular basis, unless he himself wants the job (wishful thinking), but I do profoundly believe they can get closer, a lot closer, a lot more often than they have done this year. The management of the orchestra should take note: this is what can be achieved, and the more you hire conductors who fall far short, the more depressing it is and the more it shows. A performance of this calibre requires you to do much better next season, because it shows everyone that you can.