Sunday 4 May 2008

Scottish Chamber Roundup

For the second in my series of posts catching up with reviews of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's work, I turn my attention to what, for me, has been the most consistently satisfying strand of their concert season: the series of chamber concerts given by what is referred to in the season brochure as the SCO Ensemble. What this means in practice is ad hoc assemblies of members of the orchestra, often the principals, but often not. The quality of these performances makes it all the sadder that there are only three next season as opposed to four, perhaps the management can explain this bizarre decision; I cannot.

I'm not so behind with these as with some other concerts, the earliest dates from Sunday March 2nd and featured Mozart's trio in E flat Kegelstatt (or skittle) and Schubert's octet. The Mozart was the less successful of the two. An odd scoring of piano, clarinet and viola, this was very much a scratch trio and it felt it. Caroline Henbest on viola and Barnaby Robson on clarinet (it seems the orchestra's superb Maximiliano Martin was indisposed) were joined by Peter Evans on piano. Their playing was perfectly decent but it wasn't apparent who, if anyone, was actually leading the trio and there seemed to be a lack of communication between them.

Things fared much better for the octet as Henbest and Robson were joined by the orchestra's leader Christopher George and Claire Sterling on violin, David Watkin on cello, Graham Mitchell on bass, Guillermo Salcedo on bassoon and Gavin Edwards on horn. From the first note this was more like it. There was clear leadership and clear communication between the players, and it was apparent in the sound, the ensemble played clearly with a single voice in the way only the best chamber groups manage. It was a vibrant reading of a work I little know, David Watkin's contribution was, as ever, particularly dynamic.

A month later, and a few days after a successful orchestral concert, Christian Zacharias returned for an almost all Mozart chamber programme. He kicked things off with solo piano work and the variations on a minuet by Duport K573. His playing was poetic and with beautiful delicacy. Indeed, more impressive than had been the case in the Beethoven concerto. He has recorded the sonatas and I think I may need to investigate them.

This was followed by Reger's serenade in G op.141a, a new work to me. Scored for violin, viola and flute, this was superbly played by Christopher George, Jane Atkins and Alison Mitchell respectively. Following the interval was more Mozart and the quartet K370 for oboe, violin, viola and cello. George and Atkins were joined by Robin Williams on oboe and David Watkin on cello. At first I was a little disappointed that we were not getting Zacharias for more of the programme, but the playing soon dispensed with such doubts. A fine piece and finely played, and one with which I need to become better acquainted.

Finally, Zacharias returned to the stage for Mozart's piano quartet K478, joined by Watkin, George and Atkins. This was possibly the most compelling and cohesive performance of the afternoon. The four came together much better than such scratch ensembles often do. I notice that Paul Lewis has recorded this for Hyperion, something else to add to the to be listened to shelf, I think.

The final chamber concert came only yesterday, and on the odd time of Saturday morning. Indeed, since the SCO were also playing an evening concert it almost felt like the festival. This was the SCO's subscriber concert - free to any who donate or get a season ticket (a not particular select group given it seemed fuller than many of the chamber concerts).

The first work was Prokofiev's sonata for two violins, and engagingly played by Zoe Beyers and Rosenna East. I enjoyed it very much, though am unable to judge the calibre of the performance more than that, since it was my first hearing of the work. This was followed by Elgar's piano quintet (again unknown to me) with the addition of Brian Schiele on viola, Su-a Lee on cello and Alasdair Beatson on piano. Schiele gave a brief but interesting introduction, setting the composition into the context of the absence for several years (due to the Great War) of the Three Choirs festival and noting Elgar's description of the first movement as "ghostly stuff", though I'm not sure I really heard that. At first I thought the orchestra's streak of having more delicate pianists for the chamber series was being maintained, but as the work progressed I found Beatson slightly heavy-handed and not quite in balance. Otherwise, though, it was superbly played.

All in all, as I said at the start, the most consistently satisfying series. Of course, that may be because, as will be apparent to anyone who's read this far, these are works I know much less well, if at all, than the orchestral fare, and probably that makes me easier to please.

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