Friday 6 November 2009

Paul Lewis plays Beethoven to perfection while Andrew Manze observes too many repeats

After having to miss several due to other commitments, it was very nice last night to finally make my first official SCO concert of the 2009/10 season. But then, Paul Lewis playing Beethoven was never something I was going to pass by. Lewis's Beethoven has had rave reviews left right and centre, not to mention here, and I've been a fan of it since I first came across him playing the complete sonatas at the Queen's Hall.

Last time he was here, back in January, he gave us a Mozart concerto; this time it was Beethoven's third, with exactly the same partners (Andrew Manze and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra). He did not disappoint. All the hallmarks of a great Lewis performance were present - a wonderful mix of weight, grandeur and delicacy, made all the more special by his ability to transition so seamlessly, and seemingly effortlessly, between them. In the fast moments, such was the intricacy of his finger work that nothing was lost. It was little short of a master class. Behind him Manze provided solid support, with the orchestra firmly in their historically informed gear and using natural horns and trumpets. Their phrasing was very crisp, perhaps a little too much so early on, in a way that didn't entirely convince me. True, he lacked the ultimate control and excitement that Mackerras would have brought, but it was pretty fine nonetheless. Manze and Lewis were never at odds, though, and the result was a nicely unified reading, something that all too often isn't the case. Almost always the balance between soloist and orchestra was well judged, except during a few moments of the slow movement, where they could have been slightly softer behind Lewis's exquisitely teasing phrasing. However, such reservations are minor: it was a glorious joy to hear and only makes me wish once more that the team Lewis is recording these with was Mackerras and the SCO. Let's hope Lewis returns again next year, perhaps for some more Mozart. Alternatively, perhaps he could be persuaded to do a solo concert of the Diabelli Variations as well.

The Beethoven was preceded by Webern's Five Movements for Strings, op.5. These, scored for string orchestra alone, proved a great series of miniatures, displaying a wonderful range of colours and textures; each interesting and none overstaying its welcome. Indeed, they showcased the economy of Webern's writing and just how much he could do with how little. Manze directed a finely controlled and well played reading.

The second half was to feature Schubert's sixth symphony (so called the Little as it is in the same key as the Great C major but about half as long). However, Manze turned to address the audience. He did so fairly briefly, and confined himself to talking about the music and some interesting biographical details about Webern. It's only a pity that he didn't go into more depth about how the works fitted together in the programme, rather than just giving a throw away line to the effect that Webern had studied the others so there was a reason for it all. The Movements, we were told, could be appreciated both close up and from far away. So much so that we'd hear them again. I'm baffled as to why. Perhaps he wanted to annoy Edinburgh's ultra-conservative audience. It's not that I don't like the pieces, they're very good, but I'm not sure I got anything more the second time. The purported excuse that Schubert's thirty minute plus symphony was too short doesn't really stand up: the concert would have run a respectable two hours without the repeat. What's more, if the 2006 International Festival Beethoven concerts taught us anything it was that just because you have the time, doesn't mean you have to fill it, indeed it's sometimes better not to. And if the programme really was light, why not add another short work (doubtless another Webern might fit the bill). Maybe some people listened more carefully the second time, but surely that effect could have been had by doing the talk at the very start. I realise I've now expended a vastly disproportionate amount of time on this, but I was sufficiently baffled by the decision, something that, in an awful lot of concert going, I've never encountered before, that it detracted from my enjoyment of the Schubert.

That was a shame, because it was really rather good. Manze led the orchestra in a witty, dramatic and very well played performance (with some particularly excellent work from guest principal flautist Daniel Pailthorpe in the first movement). The influence Rossini could be keenly felt. As is often the case with less well known works, one was left wondering why Schubert's symphonies that aren't numbered eight or nine don't make it onto concert programmes more often.

Oh, and one final thought. Anyone recalling that silly piece in the Grauniad a while back which suggested orchestral players never look at the conductor might have enjoyed noting just how often principal cellist David Watkin looked at Manze (at times almost every other bar).

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