Sunday 4 May 2008

A call to arms: The Society for the Prevention of Inappropriate Encores (and stupid programme notes)

I don't know who first thought up the idea of the encore, a short piece played after the concert programme has ended. Some people clearly like them, I almost never do. Their wrongness was highlighted in a recent concert from Swensen and the SCO where violinist Henning Kraggerud seemed to think that it was possible to find an appropriate encore for the Brahms concerto. If it is, he hasn't identified it.

The other chief complaint about this concert concerns the calibre of the programme notes. I increasingly wonder why I fork out £2 for these. I suppose they're useful for making notes and reminding me of the personnel, but that is online and a pad would surely be more cost-effective. In his note to the first piece Conrad Wilson, moonlighting from his job as the Scotsman's missable music critic, he tells us:

"Dvorak's father and grandfather were village butchers, and he, too, might have joined the family trade, thereby depriving us of the 'New World' Symphony and the greatest of all cello concertos."

The emphasis is mine, added so that nobody thinks I'm complaining about the punctuation. It always irks me when anyone describes anything as the greatest blank. There are many great cello concertos, what possible basis is there for judging which of the Elgar and the Dvorak is the greater. Both are incredible, let us leave it at that. But, since Conrad Wilson wasn't playing, it seems wrong to waste more time on him.

The Dvorak reference can in the note to his serenade for strings, op.22. The orchestra played it well, though I would have liked a more focussed reading in the slower moments. Given the size of the ensemble for this, one has to question the necessity for a conductor, the more so given this ensemble's ability without one. Applause followed the scherzo. I must confess that through ignorance, in a manner very unlike me, I joined it, I had quite lost count of the movements. This was followed by the serenade for winds, op.44. The playing here was taut and particularly fine. Cellist David Watkin was on superb form as the sole non-wind. However, I couldn't help noticing that the bassoons were a cut above what they've been lately. Now, the SCO's wind section is always good, and well serviced to boot, but they have suffered a little of late. Glancing at the first bassoonist I thought here was a familiar face. A check of the programme at the interval confirmed that this was indeed Ursula Leveaux, whose playing has been sorely missed. Sadly, those more in the know than me confirm that she was just standing in and has not rejoined the orchestra. Pitty.

I arrived in Edinburgh pretty well just just as Joseph Swensen was leaving as SCO as principal conductor. One of the things that has intrigued me was that he often performed (and appears on recordings) as both soloist and conductor, he also plays the violin. However, he did not choose to do so with the Brahms concerto. This may, though, have contributed to the fact that he seemed not to be going for the same interpretation as Henning Kraggerud, the evening's actual soloist. Only at the very end did they seem to meet up, and then only because they were both very loud, more than anything else. Indeed, as with so much else this season, too loud was a complaint. I think the Brahms concerto calls for a measure of weight and authority but he did not display any. The SCO horns, who are making less fluffs these days than they were a couple of years ago, backslid a little, with some particularly mumbled work in the opening.

Kraggerud then played an encore, I neither knew nor cared what it was. The power of the close of that concerto is ruined by attempting one. What next, an encore to Mahler's 8th or Wagner's Ring? The other patrons didn't seem to share my view, and perhaps nobody else does, but if you do, let's start a campaign.

The Brahms was accompanied by a similarly stupid programme note to Wilson's effort. This, by Gerald Larner, stated:

"As Joachim well knew, the test of a great concerto is not how brilliant the solo part is but how much more inspired the soloist seems to be than the orchestra behind him."

Well, each to their own, but of the many concertos I know and love, I can't think of any I would apply this statement to. Particular, say, the Brahms first concerto where I think a lot of the genius lies in the threat of the orchestra overwhelming the soloist but not doing so (assuming it's played well). But is the piano part of the Emperor really more inspired than the orchestral writing? Perhaps it depends on the conductor, but when you have a superb accompanist, such as Mackerras, it feels no less inspired.

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