For their third concert in less than a week, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra built their programme around two symphonies in C. No shortage of those, you might quite rightly say, but fewer titled specifically Symphony in C, as opposed to, say, Symphony Number Something (there's an interesting title for a post-modern composer). I can think of only two, the two that we got tonight: those of Bizet and Stravinsky.
Stravinsky was first up. Right from the start the SCO were on fine form, horns and bassoons standing out particularly in the finale. However, Stravinsky is quite a way from being my favourite composer and I felt that Andrew Litton didn't quite give his reading the drive and edge that was needed in the opening two movements. The allegretto was much more compelling, so too the finale. And yet, somehow, the piece didn't quite work for me structurally. However, Litton was a good judge of volume and, despite large forces, including three trombones and a tuba, did not overwhelm the Queen's Hall, as sometimes happens.
After the interval came the Bizet, which was much more successful and danced along beautifully. Composed while he was still a student, one can hear the seeds of ideas that would later bloom in the likes of Carmen (particularly during the finale). At the close of the concert, Litton hesitated, not quite knowing which members of the orchestra to bring to their feet first. I know how he felt. From principal cello David Watkin, with one hand dramatically posed on his leg, delivering driving chords in the third movement, to Alison Mitchell's superb flute playing at the work's close, or the sheer beauty of the slow movement (which my neighbour decided was the perfect time to noisily leaf through his programme), the playing was superb.
But the real highlight came just before the interval. Everyone but the strings left the stage and, in their place, soprano Sally Matthews came on for Britten's Les Illuminations, a series of settings of poems by Rimbaud. In her programme note, Janet Beat tells us that he stumbled across them whilst staying with Auden's parents. In my view, it's something of a shame that he didn't set some Auden instead, as the poems in and of themselves don't entirely grab me. Fortunately, Britten's settings do. What struck me, particularly after the Stravinsky, was how, with a much smaller and more limited ensemble, Britten managed to find far more richness and variety. The SCO strings were exemplary. Litton proved a good accompanist. Matthews provided a wonderfully dramatic interpretation, making me think she'd be well worth seeing in the opera house. However, I had some reservations concerning her voice: it seemed a little on the thin side and with slightly more of wobble than I care for (but, as regular readers will know, I'm far too picky about this). Such reservations are minor: it was a fine evening. On an interesting side note, my Britten conducts Britten box (volume 4) has the role sung by a tenor (Peter Pears, though you could probably have guessed that).
That puts the SCO three for three. I hear them next on Saturday the 25th when Swensen is back with Schubert and Schumann, then on 30th April for what promises to be one of the real highlights of the season: Christian Zacharias for a programme including Haydn's sinfonia concertante (with David Watkin as one of the soloists).