Sunday 4 May 2008

The SCO show they can still bring it: two overdue gems from Chicago and Handel

If there was a criticism of my reviews of the SCO this season, it might be that they haven't always been the most positive. What's more, as I complete my task of catching up, I notice that two of the finest performances have slipped through the net. I'm rather sorry for this, and intend to rectify it immediately with several paragraphs of much overdue praise.

First up is Handel's opera Theodora, in concert, from as recently as November! Given the state of Scottish Opera, it's all the finer to hear a strong concert performance of an opera. Conductor Kenneth Montgomery was new to me, but it's clear from his biography that he's steeped in opera. This is also clear from his conducting as he brings a good sense of drama, something that separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of opera conducting. He wasn't perfect: at times a little loud for the hall, but given the full chorus was present too, and that this clearly wanted to be in the Usher Hall, he may be forgiven. Indeed, the orchestra forced its way back into the stalls as far as I've ever seen it (I was very nearly breathing down Su-a Lee's neck as she superbly played the cello part of the continuo).

His pacing was fairly brisk, and this is no bad thing in a Handel opera, as it is all too easy for things to drag, yet there were moments when I would have liked him to savour a little more, as Mackerras did in Orlando.

The SCO chorus sang well, though in truth their diction was not quite what it can be, or usually has been in the recent past. Susan Gritton sang the title role well, if her voice was perhaps fractionally thin for my taste conversely I found David Wilson-Johnson as Valens was a little coarse. The only other reservation concerns Christine Rice who swept me away as Annio in La Clemenza di Tito. Her voice seems to have grown thicker and with a heavier vibrato than I care for. But in the quieter moments, of which there were plenty, I had few complaints.

It makes me wish for more of the same next year. And we very nearly are getting such: Handel's Alexander's Feast. Unfortunately I will not be attending. Richard Egarr is conducting from the harpsichord and given how lacklustre his Matthew Passion was, when he didn't have to worry about playing as well, I wouldn't touch this with a barge pole.

Only slightly more recently, another conductor of whom I've never heard joined the orchestra for what, on the face of it, was not the most promising programme ever: Okko Kamu was playing a mix of minor Sibelius works and Tchaikovsky. I like some Tckaikovsky, particularly the 4th to 6th symphonies, but I loath the piano concerto (except in Grainger's reduction for solo piano), on which basis I didn't hold out much hope for the violin, which I tend to like less as a solo instrument anyway. Kamu opened with Sibelius's Rakastava. Certainly it is not his greatest work, none the less, they played it very nicely and, better still, at sensible volumes for the Queen's Hall.

It shouldn't, but the first thing that strikes one about soloist Rachel Barton Pine is the slightly awkward manner in which she walks onto the stage and that she sits rather than stands, which is unusual for a violin soloist. It transpires that this is the result of a quite horrific accident. Fortunately it hasn't dented her playing skills, or, at least, if it did she must have been beyond astonishing before.

There was a real verve and personality to her playing, and a real energy too. Kamu supported her well. There was some wonderful playing, not least in the superb duet between violin and clarinet in the slow movement. I've recently railed against encores, but here they arguably eclipsed the concerto. She first played something with Scottish roots, which was nice enough, but this was followed by a quite superb blues Sweet Home Chicago. If you don't believe me, I suggest you check out this You Tube clip. Her CDs join the long list of those to be investigated. She also had the decency to tell us what the encores were, which I like.

After the interval came Sibelius's suite no.2 from The Tempest. Kamu and the SCO gave a magical reading: there was a wonderful weight to Prospero and beautiful lightness to Miranda and some superb, what I can only describe as pizzicato bowing (I'm sure there's a more accurate technical term) during the songs. Finally came Tchaikovsky's extremely odd suite no.4 Mozartiana. This is a celebration of Mozart, and Tchaikovsky re-orchestrating him. And the result is absolutely bizarre, sounding like Mozart and yet not in the least like Mozart. It was fascinating to hear and they played it well.

It is a great pity that neither Barton Pine or Kamu are returning to the SCO next season, though Barton Pine is joining the RSNO for the Bruch concerto in October. I'll be there (assuming the Usher Hall is open).

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