Friday 19 December 2008

Struggling to sit still - James Lowe and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Beethoven

When it's difficult to sit still at a concert it means one of two things: that the performance is either very bad or very good. Fortunately this fell into the latter category.

The initial auguries were not promising. I had been looking forward to tonight's concert as it marks the return of conductor Frans Bruggen, who was one of the finest guest conductors to join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra last year for an all Mendelssohn programme. For his return he was opting for Beethoven with the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the second symphony.

I was, therefore, initially somewhat disappointed to see the poster on my way in that stated Bruggen had withdrawn from the concert. We hope all is well with the 74 year old conductor and wish him a speedy return to the podium, hopefully here in Edinburgh.

His replacement was James Lowe, a young and up and coming Scottish conductor. I heard him during the summer when he conducted the amateur Rose Street Ensemble in a rather interesting programme (and a friend of ours who plays in that ensemble gives he rave reviews, indeed, by coincidence, and by way of declaring an interest, I met him in passing in the pub last week after film club).

Beethoven is tricky ground for anyone conducting the SCO. After all, Mackerras's stunning series of the symphonies at the 2006 festival still rings in the minds as all, such as myself, who had the privilege to hear them. Many conductors who've tackled the works with them since have fallen short in comparison.

Interestingly, the programme placed the The Creatures of Prometheus first. Lowe has a dynamic style and the orchestra were at their most responsive for him. Well, nearly; perhaps not quite so much as with Mackerras, but that may be that the latter has a better understanding of their capabilities, or a better knowledge of how to get them, as once or twice it felt Lowe pushed them further than they could go. That said, Beethoven should always sound a little raw.

He got some wonderfully sharp contrasting dynamics and was at his most persuasive in the quicker moments. It is true that at times a little more subtlety would have been nice, but this was Beethoven at his most youthful. Superb solo performances were given by Clarinetist Maximiliano Martin, David Watkin (as ever) and also bassoonist Peter Whelan (at least, I assume so, the second bassoon is credited in the programme as Alison Green, but it certainly wasn't her).

Then came the second half and the second symphony. I always find it an interesting work: unlike many of the other symphonies, I would be hard pushed to hum any of the tunes, yet from the moment I hear the opening bars I feel as though I'm back with a dear old friend. A dear, old, fresh and rejuvenated friend in Lowe's hands. The slow opening was nicely taken before they launched thrillingly into the main theme, and I started to struggle to sit still. My head wanted to move, my feet to tap and I even fancied a little armchair conducting as I might in the privacy of my own living room. I wasn't the only one: leader Christopher George played with a wonderful energy, swaying on his seat as he did so.

Like the best of Beethoven it was full of surprises, the orchestra playing superbly. Though, if there was a reservation, it would be that the volume was a bit too high for the Queen's Hall much of the time, yet they seemed to display a wider dynamic range than in the first half. Also, while the pauses were full of tension, they could have been held that bit longer, for that bit more drama.

But it wasn't just the faster moments such as the first and last movements that were electric: the slow movement and the scherzo were both filled with drama too.

This was one of the finest and most enjoyable performances of the second that it has been my pleasure to hear, and I've heard Mackerras conduct with the same band so my praise doesn't get too much higher than that.

Only one question remains: when can we next expect to hear Lowe on the podium at the Queen's Hall? I don't know if the orchestra's management reads this blog, I expect not, but they could do an awful lot worse than engage his services more frequently (certainly they have done much worse in the past). Perhaps we might have him as principal guest conductor when Elts' contract is up.

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