Thursday 23 October 2008

A proper season opener from the SCO (and Truls Mork returns)

My first Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, following the rather disappointing opening concert at Greyfriars Kirk, saw a welcome return to the Queen's Hall and, more importantly, to form. (It should be noted that two concerts have in fact taken place in the meantime, but one was a Cl@six concert at St Cuthberts, and my thoughts on those are well recorded, and the other was last Saturday, when I was enjoying what culture London had to offer, it also hailed from the more offbeat Adventurer new music series.)

The orchestra were joined by Norwegian conductor Eivind Aadland who began the programme with late Haydn in the form of the 102nd symphony, a lovely work, if not quite one of my favourites (the military and clock, 100 and 101 respectively, if you're interested). Initially things weren't too promising. The orchestra was a not quite tight enough during the slow introduction and his conducting seemed a little flouncing in manner. However, things improved greatly as the pace picked up. Unfortunately, Aadland didn't quite seem to know what to do with his pauses. A well held pause should have you on the edge of your seat, desperate for more; it isn't just an opportunity to down tools for a couple of beats. The start gave me pause for concern about the adagio. Fortunately this was unnecessary, though he did take it fairly briskly. What stood out, as ever, was the exceptional solo work of principal cellist David Watkin. The menuet was less successful. Aadland seemed to approach it more like a Beethoven scherzo, i.e. in a manner altogether too heavy. And unlike with Jochum, it did not become the key to the work. The finale was fine, but again the pauses were not well used. As Guildenstern notes in Tom Stoppard's superb play "There is an art to the building up of suspense"; Mackerras understands this art, as do many others, Aadland did not display it.

Fortunately, much better was to come as the stage hands moved things around to make way for Truls Mork, whose excellent performance last season of Hallgrimsson's cello concerto was a real highlight. This time round he showed his dexterity by moving from the very modern to the early classical and the second cello concerto of CPE Bach. (It is interesting to note that those in Glasgow and Ayr get the first while we share the second with St Andrews, the reason for this isn't explained but I can only think, and hope, that it is due to them also being recorded.) The forces are slightly unusual, being just string orchestra and harpsichord, no wind or brass in sight; unfortunately Gerald Larner's programme note provides no elucidation on this point, not even mentioning it.

From the moment Mork steps onto the stage and tunes his instrument (a rare Domenico Montagnana, with a lovely deep red hue) to his insistence on shaking hands with fellow cellist Su-a Lee and David Watkin at the end, he has an understated presence, which is mirrored in his beautiful playing. The richness of the tone he produces is also quite something. The orchestra playing, under Aadland's baton, was much sharper than for the Haydn, and Alastair Ross was excellent on the harpsichord. Indeed, it seemed a shame we couldn't have had both cello concertos instead of the Haydn. It is to be hoped the SCO engage Mork again next season, perhaps for some Dvorak under Charles Mackerras - that would be something. And maybe he could also be persuaded to take part in one of the chamber concerts?

Returning from the interval, I was again concerned: the Haydn had been a mixed bag, would Beethoven's first symphony suffer similar problems? It did not. More specifically it suffered none of them (or next to none, the sole exception being one or two pauses that added nothing, but this was not detrimental as it was in the Haydn). I think any conductor bringing Beethoven to the SCO taking a risk. After all, for many, myself not least, the memory of Charles Mackerras's cycle still resonates and is a very special one. This problem haunted many who brought Beethoven last year, in particular Thierry Fischer and especially Andreas Spering. Not so Aadland, and not so tonight. True, his first didn't have quite the humour or the thrilling pace of Mackerras, neither did it have the weight of the world that someone like Colin Davis brings with an orchestra like the Dresden Staatskapelle, but it did seem to delight in the music in a lovely way. The playing was tight and there were plenty of surprises; and Beethoven should do nothing if not surprise. The winds were on fine form and added nice textures. It was a reading full of drama and excitement. The proto-scherzo that is the menuetto worked in exactly the way the Haydn menuet didn't (and for the same reasons). Indeed, the quality of the orchestral playing in both the Beethoven and the Bach led me to wonder whether the Haydn might have been under-rehearsed.

One final note, a frequent complaint against conductors last year, e.g. Louis Langree, was the excess volume in the Queen's Hall. This prompted me to relocate this year from the stalls to the gallery, which also affords a better view of the whole orchestra. Whether it was that, Aadland's good judgement or the fairly small SCO on display tonight, or some combination of the three, remains to be seen, but there were no such problems tonight; long may that continue.

All in all, an excellent evening and a proper start to the season. And things can only get better since our next encounter, albeit relocated to Glasgow, features Mackerras and the Beethoven fourth piano concerto. I can't wait.

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