Sunday, 4 May 2008

A note to Louis Langree: you're not auditioning for a role in Spinal Tap

These go to eleven.

So spake Nigel Tufnel in the superb fake-rockumentary This is Spinal Tap. He was boasting as to how his amplifiers were so much better than those of many other bands because they went only went up to ten whereas his did eleven, and that was clearly louder. Loudness was, in Tufnel's world, king. It has sometimes seemed that way in many of the SCO's concerts this year, where the conductor hasn't balanced his forces properly considering he is in the confines of the (small) Queen's Hall. Louis Langree, who performed last night, was probably the worst offender to date.

And this is a shame, because both the calibre of the playing, and the readings in most other respects, were excellent. He led off with Beethoven's Leonore overture no.2, which is on a fairly moderate scale when set next to some of the others, not that one would have known that. The balance of the strings and the winds (which were often a little overwhelmed) wasn't perfect either, and owed something both the volume and my seating position. Other than noise levels, my main reservation concerned the offstage trumpet. It wasn't badly played or anything, but somehow the balance between it and the orchestra seemed unremarkable, which is surely not the reason for placing it offstage. Where's Donald Runnicles when you need him?

The orchestra was then joined by Renaud Capucon on violin (of whom I have on a good recording of the Mendelssohn and Schumann concertos with Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra) and Antoine Tamestit on viola for Mozart's sinfonia concertante K364, which I know much less well than K297. Surprisingly, perhaps, given his biography lists him as director of the Mostly Mozart festival in New York since 2002, this was the sole work for which Langree chose to conductor from the score. The orchestral playing was particularly beautiful and delicate here and, unlike in the Beethoven, volume was not an issue. At first the two soloists seemed a little rigid but they loosened up and as the work progressed it became more compelling. I have a recording (from Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra), which I must investigate further. By the finale any doubts were a distant memory. The two soloists played an encore, which for once fitted. Mozart did write two duos for violin and viola (K423 and 424) and I suspect it was something from one of these. Whatever it may have been though, it was lovely. Tamestit and Capucon have a recording of the sinfonia concetante on the way from Virgin, also with the SCO, one worth looking out for.

After the interval the knob was right back up to eleven, if not beyond, for Schumann's wonderful fourth symphony (in, the programme informed us, its final 1851 version, but given the Penguin Guide lists no alternative versions I wonder if this is an artificial distinction, unlike, say with Bruckner symphonies). The volume was a shame, given this was an absolutely thrilling and joyful reading. My only reservation would be that the slow movement could, perhaps, have been a little more so. The orchestra played superbly, the more so given the extremely high speeds Langree called for (especially in the finale); that the orchestra held so clearly together at these times is a testament to their skill. Something gave violinists Zoe Beyers and Vicky Sayles the giggles a few minutes before the end (though they held it in well). If either of them, or anyone else in the know, is reading this, I'm curious to know what it was.

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