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.
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