A what? You might well ask, if, like me, you don't recall having seen one before. Well, more anon. It's always a treat when Sir Charles Mackerras teams up with this superb orchestra, but Sunday afternoon's programme (a repeat of a concert given on Thursday) was something special, even by those high standards.
They led off with Mendelssohn's Overture, A Midsummer Night's Dream, doubtless occasioned by the current bicentennial celebrations of the composer (in related news, it emerges that there are a jaw-dropping number of unpublished works, though it does seem that quite a few of these are fragments). Now, in my experience, Mendelssohn needs to be done with plenty of drive and energy, otherwise it can easily fall flat. However, with Mackerras on the podium, lack of drive and energy are never a concern. More interesting, he has recorded the overture with the period ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, something I've been meaning to sample. As he often does with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, he had persuaded some of the players to turn in their instruments for earlier models: horns and trumpets were natural, the timpani also seemed to be period. Lurking next to the trumpets was a strange looking creation that, by a process of elimination from the orchestra list, had to be an ophicleide (the picture on the link confirms this), which turns out to be a precursor of the tuba and euphonium, though, mouthpiece notwithstanding, its design was more reminiscent of a saxophone. Elsewhere, the playing was of a distinctly historically informed flavour. The results were excellent. The orchestra provided a showcase of their talents, especially in the incredibly delicate playing of the opening. The piece bubbled along with drama and joy and proved a fine curtain raiser. I'll have to pick up the OAE disc (it includes the rest of the incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Italian symphony).
Also worth noting, the orchestra seemed to be having a lot of fun. The wide grin on the face of Tony George (the ophicleide player - perhaps the instrument is not often needed in the Festival Hall, more's the pity given his playing) was lovely to see, but it was widely shared. Indeed, there seemed to be the same joy in making music that one finds in an amateur ensemble, though there was nothing amateur about the playing. Similarly, and perhaps it was just that I was sitting quite close to front, there was a real sense of the communication between the players, in a way one normally only notices in a chamber ensemble. It only confirmed the view I've aired before that this orchestra is rather special.
There was a brief gap while the stage was rearranged, and the piano moved into place. This would be the second time I'd heard Mackerras perform Mozart's K491 piano concerto in the last year or so (he previously did it in Edinburgh with Alfred Brendel and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Festival). Tonight's pianist was Yefim Bronfman. Mackerras provided a powerful introduction and Bronfman's slightly subdued opening notes gave me pause for though, would this be another all to common example of mismatched approaches? I needn't have been concerned. Bronfman displayed every inch the fire needed to match the propulsive accompaniment. And yet, it was a sensitive accompaniment too, never did Mackerras tread on the pianist's tones. There was delicacy to Bronfman's pianism too, and it was a beautiful and unmannered performance with no thumping in sight. Perhaps not quite having the clarity that Paul Lewis does, but a compelling performance nonetheless.
The real meat came after the interval with Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony. Recently, I've heard an illustrated talk Leonard Bernstein recorded about this symphony, which demonstrates how much of it is build up from simple scales, the genius being that it doesn't appear simple at all. Mackerras gave a thrilling reading, from the soft opening bars onwards there was a gripping tension which, every now and then, he would release in the most almighty avalanche of sheer orchestral power. He frequently did not hang about, yet the control and discipline of the orchestra in the fastest moments was something special to hear and they kept up with him splendidly. He found delicacy and tenderness too, where the score called for that. The slightest half-smattering of applause followed the thrilling conclusion of the scherzo. In lesser hands the adagio can underwhelm in comparison. Not so in this case: the climaxes were heavy with emotion and Mackerras provided a transporting reading that faded to a quiet yet powerful conclusion. Playing was superb throughout, and while individual sections may have impressed at times, such as the winds or the horns, not least for the effect they gave, almost of off-stage brass, when stopped in the final movement, to single any out seems unfair given the uniformly high calibre of the ensemble.
All in all, one of the most satisfying concerts I've heard in a long time (indeed, one that has a compelling claim on the yellow jersey for best concert of the season thus far). The array of microphones indicated that it was being recorded for release on the orchestra's own label (either as a download, or, hopefully, on CD; previous achievements include an excellent Schubert 9th, if not quite so fine as his SCO recording, and Mahler's 4th). Mackerras may now be 83, but you'd not have had an inkling of this if you'd been sitting in the hall with your eyes closed, or, indeed, if you sample these superb performances when the CD releases come, which can't happen soon enough. Sir Charles next joins the Philharmonia on Thursday for a programme that includes the K466 concerto and Elgar's first symphony, sadly I must be back in Edinburgh before then. After that, it is Wagner chunks with Christine Brewer on 10th December. I can't wait.