Wednesday 8 April 2009

Congratulations to Sir Charles and the SCO

Mackerras has always had a way with Mozart, from his stunning reading of the Magic Flute on Chandos (with the incomparable Simon Keenlyside) to his cycle of the symphonies with the Prague Chamber Orchestra (now available in a dirt cheap slim box). However, some of his finest achievements with the composer have been made through his association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. This stretches back many years and probably owes a lot to Mackerras's close association with the Edinburgh Festival under director Brian McMaster. In particular, there was the cycle of operas begun on Telarc, completed on EMI and DG. However, there have also been four wonderful discs of concerti with Brendel and this wonderful set of horn concerti.

Enter the picture Linn records. Over the last few years they have formed a partnership with the SCO, resulting in some fine discs (such as the Swensen/Sibelius I mentioned in Saturday's review). One of the early discs featured Mackerras and Mozart, specifically requiem, in a fine recording of the Levin completion, fine not least for the contribution of SCO chorus. That was 2002.

Then, five years later, the same forces, well, save for the chorus, assembled in the ideal acoustic of Glasgow's City Halls to produce something very special indeed: a double disc of Mozart's final four symphonies. Why mention any of this today? Well, because the public have just spoken and, for once, they have agreed with me and voted this the BBC Music Magazine disc of the year. There was some strong competition, particularly Marin Alsop's fine and fresh reading of Dvorak's new world symphony; and yet, for me at any rate, the decision was a no brainer.

In large part this is down to the stunning Prague. Something Michael Tumelty acknowledges in his lengthy write-up (though I don't entirely agree with him - I don't think the Prague is regarded as a poor sibling to the extent he suggests). Then again, maybe that's because I know it so well through Sir Charles and the SCO: I've heard them do it live not once but twice. The first time was in a 2004 Festival concert that included Brendel for the 12th and 17th concerti (the Prague served as warm-up and an illustration of the inadequacies of the Usher Hall's back stage arrangements as Brendel could be heard practising, so much so that associate director James Waters had to nip out from his customary stalls seat to do something about it). Most recently, they did it again during their sole appearance together in the 2007/8 season. The recording is special, full of life and energy. Mammoth in its scale, observing all repeats in a first movement that, despite Mackerras's anything but sluggish reading, weighs in at just under eighteen minutes. It's a mark of the disc that the rest lives up to the impossible standard this sets.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is one of those musical collaborations that rises to more than the sum of its parts, like Runnicles and the BBC Scottish, to give a result that is second to none. If you haven't heard this disc already, buy it now, you won't regret it. This isn't a full review, I still have that sitting on my to do pile (he's recorded these symphonies several times before, and I do mean to make a proper comparison some day, as no review I've read has). Suffice to say the award is well deserved and not before time. But, should you still need convincing, here's what I had to say about that stunning live Prague back in March 2008.

One only wishes to end with a plea for some more. Fortunately that's not necessary. They are returning to the studio in July for just that reason, making the obvious choice of the Paris (31), Haffner (35) and Linz (36), or so a reliable source informs me, and, if memory serves the 29th. I can't wait. If the concert given in Glasgow last October that included the Paris and Linz is anything to go by (sorry, review not yet typed up for that one either), it should be something quite special. In the meantime, a disc of Beethoven's last three concertos with Pizarro is due from Linn at the end of the month.

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