Thursday 1 May 2008

Three Director's Notes

I've managed to get slightly behind in my series covering (or rather, intending to cover, since for unavoidable reasons I've missed several now) the SCO's 2007/8 season. This post will, therefore, cover slightly more than three notes, namely the second, third and fourth concerts in the Director's Notes series, so named because the conductor is also the soloist (or a member of the orchestra). The first instalment, Mustonen, didn't exactly meet with my approval. Fortunately, nothing that followed was that bad, and much of it was actually very good.

Not the second concert though. I had already experienced Piotr Anderszewski's pianism. He seems to be getting rave reviews in certain circles; I dissent. But the first piece on the programme on 5th March had nothing whatever to do with him, but instead with a member of the orchestra whose praises I've frequently sung on these pages: principal cellist David Watkin. He directed the orchestra in Mozart's 21st symphony. In some respects this was poor timing, following as it did just one week after Mackerras's tour de force with similar repertoire. But he did a fine job, choosing broader tempi than might have been selected by the Australian. The orchestra played well for him, if not quite so finely as for Mackerras. All in all, though, it was a most enjoyable start.

Up next was, frustratingly, Haydn's piano concerto in D major. Why frustrating? After all, it's a work that is new to me, and that's always nice. Well, the Perth programme a day earlier had Mozart's concerto K488 instead, one of my absolute favourites. Then again, given how much I didn't appreciate Anderszewski's previous treatment of a Mozart concerto, that may have been just as well. Actually, he did an impressive job as far as conducting the orchestra was concerned, rather making me wish he had programmed a Haydn symphony instead. Unfortunately, the moment the piano entered there was the thumping. It's something I don't care for at the best of times, but in this sort of classical repertoire it isn't even forgivable in the way in might be with Tchaikovsky or Liszt. His phrasing is, in my view, rather pedestrian to boot. I was left with the strong impression that he would do well to give up his day job for the baton. In the second movement he did show some delicacy, but still the thumping lurked. To make matters worse it was joined by annoying, groaning, nasal vocalisations. The finale was little more than an depressing orgy of thumping.

For the finale, Beethoven's first (or C major, in case you're going to get pedantic about the numbering) concerto. The more shocking given this orchestra's pedigree in Beethoven, his performance made me drop any notion of his conducting skills. A quiet, clipped start yielded to excessive forte, or more, and thumping galore. I love the movement, making it the more disappointing. The largo was better, and as with the Haydn, Anderszewski found some delicacy, but always with such banal playing and always the tendency to pound the keys where greater pianists massage them. The finale was too loud orchestrally, matching the bang, bang, bang at the piano.

He played an encore. I don't know what it was, and to be honest, I didn't care that much. I don't like encores as a rule, I think they rarely add anything to a concert. I've never known Charles Mackerras to play one, artists would do well to take a leaf out of his book.

Finer things were in store when, a month later, we were joined by Christian Zacharias, something I had been looking forward to since the season brochure appeared last spring. Here is a pianist who appreciates delicacy, and who is also a seasoned conductor: I have fond memories of his visit with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra to the festival several years ago. His programme was of traditional form, overture, concerto, symphony, but well executed. He began with Beethoven's Coriolan. The opening phrases came sharply, almost like sneezes, in a good way, and he held is pauses to great effect. There was the slightly edgy tone to the strings that I think can suit Beethoven well. The main theme was taken briskly with no lack of excitement, drama and, if I'm honest, rather more volume than is necessary in the Queen's Hall.

Then came Beethoven's second concerto, probably my least favourite of the five. The sound of the orchestra was much smoother here. He had sensibly positioned the piano facing into the orchestra with the lid removed, doubtless to direct the orchestra better. However, here was Beethoven playing not nearly so exciting as in the overture, though in fairness it is a less dramatic work. His reading was not without the odd note, but there was a wonderful delicacy to his playing of the sort that has been absent this season. It was a solid performance without being a great or especially individualistic one.

The finale to this all-Beethoven programme came with the 6th symphony, again, probably my least favourite. The first too movements have often the quality of wallpaper music unless very well played and as a whole it rarely grabs me. Zacharias made a fair stab at it. Again the tones were smooth, and he played the first movement in a wonderful throbbing, pulsing and sweeping manner, injecting it with an interest too often absent. The first thing that struck me in the andante was that the first violins sounded extremely odd, and I couldn't put my finger on why, eventually I noticed something clipped onto their bridges, which turned out to be a mute. Now, while I don't love the symphony I have many recordings and have heard it in concert a number of times and I've never spotted this before, or since. A bit of googling doesn't find much support either, and I'm told it isn't in the score. I'd like to hear it again, as I was distracted by wondering what on earth was going on. Still, it did make a dull movement interesting. The allegro was solid, but the winds could have been better (as good as they were at the 2006 Festival when they performed this for Mackerras, say; of course, back then Ursula Leveaux was still principal bassoon, and sonically the orchestra are poorer without her). I can't quite believe I'm making this complaint, but the bassoons were actually a bit too prominent. Yes, often they are swamped, but by the same token they need to be a touch ethereal. The fourth movement thunderstorm suffered in two respects: first, it was much too loud, and second it lacked the textures that so vividly captured the elements with Mackerras. He didn't quite bring the finale off either, which again was too loud. I'm going to change my seat next year, as I think part of the problem is being up too close, but there have been conductors who've balanced volume better in this hall, and I had expected better from Zacharias. I wonder if I'm alone in this, since I couldn't help but notice that David Watkin had a decibel meter attached to the collar of his jacket. All in all, though, the finest instalment to date.

For Director's Notes IV I had to make the trip out to Glasgow, since the BBC Scottish had inconsiderately booked someone called Donald Runnicles on the Edinburgh night, something I omitted to notice when buying my tickets, and so ended up with a spare that had to be given away. Still, it meant the City Halls, which in turn meant fine sightlines, fine sound and no excess volume problem. Or so I thought. Despite being at the front row of the gallery, where seats are not particular cheap, the rail to stop people on the stairs falling down into the stalls completely blocked my view of most of the stage. I'm not tight-fisted, but I do object to paying the top ticket price for what is a restricted view seat. Fortunately, the person next to me didn't show up, otherwise I would have had to lean close enough to get rather friendlier than I generally like with complete strangers. I will be contacting the hall's management on this score though (annoyingly, as I write this, I can't find a note of the exact number in order to forewarn anyone who may be reading this). To make matters worse, having asked to be keyboard side had done me no good. In a bizarre decision, Stephen Kovacevich, the evening's soloist/director, had angled the piano so his back was to the violins and so he was mainly facing the audience. The third disappointment was a poorly behaved audience, particularly in contrast to the previous evening with Runnicles when someone rustling a bag had gained a dozen glances severe enough to kill. Here people talked, not just whispered, talked, and glances did little to deter them.

In a last minute order change he moved the concerto to the top. It was Mozart's K503. I'm sure his position relative to the band helps explain their uncharacteristically woolly sound. The piano was horribly steely to match, sounding just on the verge of being out of tune. Both orchestra and soloist improved as the piece progressed, and I wondered whether the room's temperature might be to blame for some of it, but the improvement wasn't enough to rescue the piece. The bassoon was not too impressive, the more so after a recent concert where Ursula returned. Kovacevich seemed always to play, never conducting at the same time, in the way that the best who do both roles can. And it showed, or rather sounded.

A long evening was in prospect. But I hadn't reckoned on Mozart's 35th Haffner symphony. This was much more like it. Taut playing, and yet with great attention to detail. True, this was no Mackerras reading, in particular it lacked some of the intricacies of the score which he would have brought out, but it was certainly the next best thing, though the andante could probably have been more so. But, as a whole joyfully played, with wonderfully clipped playing, it more than made up for the concerto.

He closed with Beethoven's fourth symphony, a favourite of mine, and this too was excellent. He brought a good mix of richness and the rough edge which, I have already mentioned, I like in Beethoven. He displayed a wonderful delicacy and lightness of touch, not to mention force as the main theme broke through in the first movement, which was full of excitement and drama. The wind playing was particularly fine here too. He judged the adagio to near perfection but lost his grip somewhat in the third movement which, in his hands, seemed a little cluttered. The finale was thrilling though.

All in all, a most enjoyable conclusion to an, at best, mixed series. It doesn't surprise me terribly that this has not been repeated. Pianists who excel at playing and conducting, and at the same time, are like gold dust. And, in honesty, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

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