Saturday, 20 March 2010

Promising on paper, but Kamu, Osborne and the SCO leave me cold

In theory, Okko Kamu's programme with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was perfect: my favourite Prokofiev symphony, a Mozart concerto and a Haydn symphony. Sadly, the evening left me completely cold.

Things got off to a disappointing start with Prokofiev's short but exciting first symphony. Kamu selected volumes that were altogether too great for the small venue. He was also rather clinical at a little too fast. True, the work's excitement does call for a swift tempo, but too swift and you lose something. The central movements lacked any of the wit and charm that make them special and were followed by a breakneck finale. There was some very good playing from the orchestra, but his choices meant it did nothing for me.

If the Prokofiev was disappointing, Mozart's final piano concerto, K595 in B-flat major, was puzzling. Kamu's overly heavy introduction might have been expected, nonetheless it was a shame. Like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it sapped the beauty from the music. When Stephen Osborne entered, he was good without being great. He was, perhaps, a little heavier than ideal, lacking the poetry of the finest Mozartians, and may be better suited to repertoire such as the Britten and Tippett concerti with which he has recently excelled on disc. That's not to say he was without his moments: there were some nice touches, especially in the cadenzas.

What baffled, though, was the complete disconnect between Kamu and Osborne. It wasn't so much that the two seemed to have radically different conceptions of the piece, as can sometimes happen, rather that there simply seemed no communication at all. When I've seen, say, Mackerras and Brendel in this repertoire, the conductor will be looking directly at the pianist at the end of the solo to take his cue to bring the orchestra back in. Kamu apparently didn't feel he needed to. Similarly, the accompaniment was often too loud, or surprisingly, too soft. The programme recommended the orchestra's recording with Brendel and Mackerras. Listening to it as I type this, the contrast is palpable.

Following the interval was Haydn's 92nd symphony, Oxford. This, too, I found much too heavy. Where was the overflowing joy that normally pervades Haydn; where was the bounce? Similarly, where was the touch of a great conductor in finding and illuminating wonderful little details in the writing along the way. All were absent. Instead we received a stern and severe reading of the work. A pity really. After all, he had in his hands an incredible instrument capable of the most wonderful delicacy. But, as so many before him, he didn't use it. Perhaps the SCO should emblazon on the conductor's stand the worlds "Less is often more".

By way of an interesting post-script, I note that I have heard Kamu before, and I found quite the reverse. How strange. Of course, it helped that my mood was thoroughly lifted by the presence of the magnificent Rachel Barton Pine. When, oh when, is someone going to bring her back to perform in Scotland (or, indeed, England) again. Perhaps a question for me to put to Donald Runnicles tomorrow.

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