Thursday, 27 August 2009

Where's Mackerras: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross - Walker and the SCO

Back when initial booking for the 2009 Festival opened in the spring, I only booked one ticket prior to the end of my Fringe duties (which finish this coming Saturday) and it was for tonight's concert. The reason: Sir Charles Mackerras and, if I needed a second, that he was conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom he has a very special and well documented (not least here) relationship.

It was, therefore, something of a blow last week when the e-mail came round announcing that he would not be able to conduct the concert and that Gary Walker, who had always been slated to do the first half, would stand in his stead. I've only encountered Walker on the podium once before but he impressed me greatly. He conducted a performance of Mahler's first symphony by a scratch orchestra of amateurs, given this and the time they had had, the results were most impressive.

How, then, would he fare with the SCO?

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Very well, as it turns out. The programme began with Haydn's 70th symphony, not one I know. It was well played throughout and had a nice bounce to it. Walker, in his reading, came close to Jochum, who is possibly my favourite interpreter of the symphonies, in making the minuet the focal point. That said, the finale had a slightly 'Is that all?' quality to it and the symphony is not, I think, the composer's finest achievement in the genre.

What came next was much more interesting and much more compelling (unless you were one of the Edinburgh audience who instinctively turn their noses up at anything recently composed). This piece could hardly have been newer: a world premiere and EIF commission. As I've noted before, I like Mills' embrace of new music. It was composed by Giorgio Battistelli and entitled Fair is foul, foul is fair. The title, a quote from Macbeth, seemed absolutely fitting. From the opening moments the wind machine, which I could not locate on the stage, and which almost seemed to be coming from beneath the overhang at the back of the stalls, lent the atmosphere of a bleak moor. The whole piece seethed with turbulent drama, so much so that you could feel the hurly-burly and the bubbling of the caldron. The orchestra (with augmented percussion and even keyboards) played superbly under Walker's direction. Almost as soon as it was done, I wanted to go back and listen again.

Lasting a little over an hour, The Last Seven Words is no small piece (and slightly misleadingly named since there are a few more than seven - it is actually the last seven sayings, with a fair bit of exposition to each). Furthermore, Walker had not only to step in at the last minute, but step into the shoes of a great Haydn interpreter. He acquitted himself superbly. The orchestra played crisply throughout, with the strings, and violins particularly, especially fine, including some lovely pizzicato work in the fifth saying. It was nice, too, to hear former principal bassoon Ursula Leveaux back with the orchestra again. The horn section (as with the trumpets playing on natural instruments) was nicely fluff-free.

However, more than the orchestra, the wonderful SCO Chorus were the stars (I should note that I know at least three of the basses - my cousin Roger Robertson, David Ireland and Donald MacLeod, occasional conductor and violinist for the Stockbridge and New Town Community Orchestra). Clear, weighty when needed, but also sublime in the quieter moments that finished many of the sayings. Credit, as ever, due to chorus master Nick Jones.

Then there were the soloists. The two women have both worked with Mackerras before. Soprano Rebecca Evans is the veteran of numerous opera recordings including his stunning English Magic Flute and several of his WNO Gilbert and Sullivan recordings. Christine Rice first came to my attention singing Annio in his 2005 performance of La Clemenza di Tito, also with the SCO, where she in some ways stole the show from Kozena with her understated performance. Both of them sang beautifully, effortlessly soaring over the orchestra. Unfortunately the two men, tenor Robert Murray and bass Henry Waddington, though both perfectly decent, were simply not in the same league.

All credit then to Walker for not only turning in an acceptable stand-in performance but an emotionally moving one that stands tall on its own merits. Indeed, one that calls for a new award, as we at Where's Runnicles sometimes are wont to give (as ever named after its inaugural recipient): The Gary Walker Award for Stepping into Gargantuan Shoes at the Last Minute and Turning in a Fantastic Performance. Actually, thinking about it, James Lowe should have had this award for his performance with the SCO back in December. Credit too to the orchestra, as these sorts of situations tend to bring out the best in people. We wish Mackerras a speedy recovery (I hope he can still do Turn of the Screw in November at ENO).

One interesting question occurred to me during the performance. Mackerras usually uses his own parts, and these are presumably sent up in advance, so I wonder if they'd already arrived in Scotland by the time he cancelled and, if so, whether they were being used?

Finally, at least there's one good side to the dreadful summer weather we're having: it seems to have prevented that awful jet the Tattoo has flying over the city every night from ruining thirty seconds of the concert.


Update - 2009-08-27

I'm reliably informed that it was the keyboard, or more accurately, the synthesiser, that provided the wind effect in the Battistelli.

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