Sunday 26 April 2009

Swensen and the SCO - Death and the Maiden

For the second time in a month, Joseph Swensen was once again on hand to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this time in a programme of Schumann and Schubert. In many ways it was a programme of curiosities, but not necessarily the worse for it.

It opened with Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale, op.52, not quite an overture, but not quite a symphony either. It is built of three distinct movements (and they are distinct, as one rogue clapper discovered the hard way). I tend to find Schumann needs to be played played with plenty of verve and feeling, one of the reasons I am so fond of Bernstein's interpretations of the composer. Swensen for the most part managed this, though the central scherzo fell a little flat.

The orchestra then rearranged slightly for Schumann's violin concerto. Mike Wheeler's programme note tells that publication was suppressed on the ground that it showed the composer's powers in decline following his mental breakdown. This strikes me as somewhat unfair. Certainly it was very good orchestrally, though Swensen did allow volume to rise a little too high for the hall at times. However, he also provided no shorted of oomph, no flat Schumann reading on show here. My reservations concern the performance of soloist Ilya Gringolts. Certainly I can quibble little technically (as his overly flash and unnecessary encore showed, something I've complained about many a time before). However, he didn't really distinguish himself from the orchestra sufficiently and seemed to lack passion. Obviously, given he was received well enough to play an encore, I was in a minority with this view.

But the second half alone was worth the price of admission. The winds snuck off during the interval and left the strings to play Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet (D810). Mahler appears to have done relatively little work - simply giving the parts to their respective sections and bulking up the cellos with the basses from time to time. The result seemed remarkably effective and made for a superb and rich sound. Of course, it helped that the playing of the SCO was wonderfully tight. The second movement stood out especially, not least for principal cello David Watkin's contribution: the drama and force with which he played at times almost rendered the basses moot, not to mention the elan of his pizzicato playing (he might as well have been playing alone, though he managed to do so in a way that didn't seem out of place). Of course, to single him out is perhaps unfair, the orchestra as a whole were on top form and the piece was among the finest things I've heard from them all season, indeed from anyone this season. Quite how they kept together at the breakneck pace Swensen set towards the end of the finale I don't know, but keep together they did.

Next up is Thursday's concert with Christian Zacharias (of whom I'm something of a fan). Though, as I strolled past Greyfriars Kirk today I noticed them setting up there (@musogeek on twitter informs me this for a special concert celebrating Donald MacLeod's 70th birthday).

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