I've said it many times before, but I think the SCO's chamber concerts are one of the jewels of their season. What a shame, then, that they've become increasingly rare over the last couple of years. So, all the better when they do come round.
Sunday's concert was unusual in featuring a singer alongside the musicians drawn from the orchestra. It was to have been mezzo Karen Cargill, who has featured heavily this season, but sadly illness ruled her out (we wish her a speedy recovery). In her place came Julia Riley. I think it's always a high compliment of such late substitutions, given preparation time is doubtless less than ideal, that had someone walked in off the street unknowing, nothing about performance would have led them to suspect it. Overall she had a nice voice, if a little piercing at high volumes (though this may have been an unfamiliarity with the hall, leading her to sing louder than was absolutely necessary). True she didn't have quite Cargill's magic, but it made for a most enjoyable recital none the less. Riley was accompanied by Simon Lepper, who gave well judged support. Schumann was followed by two songs from Brahms' op.43. In a slightly odd choice, they ran right on, with barely a second's pause, so as to afford no gap for applause in between the two sets of songs.
The concert had, however, opened with a little more drama. Violist Jane Atkins took to the stage and, again with Lepper, provided a beautiful and richly toned account of Robert Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, op.70. However, at the key transition into the presto section, her bow quite literally fell apart. A few moments later, she returned to the stage with a fresh one and picked up utterly unfazed.
The first half was rounded off with more Schumann (Robert) in the form of his Marchen Erzahlungen. This time Lepper and Atkins were joined by Maximiliano Martin, the orchestra's principal clarinet. They blended well as an ensemble and suffered no lack of coordination. It was well played throughout, with the slow movement being particularly sublime.
After the interval Martin and Lepper were back for Schumann's Fantasiestucke, which was possibly the highlight of the afternoon. Playing without music, it provided Martin with an opportunity to really shine, and he was on sparkling form to take advantage of it with a tour de force performance.
Riley then returned for some more Brahms (the op.91), but this time accompanied not only by Lepper but also by Atkins, providing a nice added colour. These last songs seemed perhaps the best suited to her voice.
The afternoon closed with a little Mozart and, interestingly, the piece that first drew Martin to my attention: Sesto's Parto, parto aria from La Clemenza di Tito. In the 2005 Edinburgh festival Mackerras gave a superb concert performance with the SCO, one of whose many memorable features was Martin's continuo parts during this aria, for which Mackerras brought him to his feet. Half a decade later, it was beautifully played and well sung, though Riley's voice was a touch loud in places.
Walking home, I couldn't help but find myself wondering how orchestras and opera companies go about filling last minute gaps when a performer is indisposed. It must be some means other than tweeting "Anyone know a mezzo who's free next Sunday?" (though, actually, that would probably be quite effective). It might be an interesting topic for a future SCO blog post.
On a side note, I'm really enjoying the orchestra's participation in Edinburgh's Carry a Poem scheme, which is taking the form of printing the featured artist's favourite poem in the programme. This afternoon we learnt that Karen Cargill's [sic] was Liebst du um Schonheit by Friedrich Ruckert.