Saturday 17 April 2010

Christian Zacharian and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Schubert

Each year, one of the regular highlights of the SCO season is the visit of pianist Christian Zacharias. Not only is he a very fine player, but he is also increasingly known as a dab hand with the baton.

Typically he has played a concerto, or similar piece, with the orchestra. Thursday's programme was rather interesting because, and this is a first in my experience of this team (and, I think, the concert hall), Zacharias wasn't directing from the keyboard, rather he played a sonata in the first half and conducted a symphony in the second. Sufficiently unexpected that it took Sean Rafferty by surprise when he was doing an interview for In Tune, though one can't help think that a professional interviewer might have bothered to look at the concert programme that was being plugged before starting the interview. But I guess silly notions like that are why he does Radio 3 and I just write a blog. Interestingly, as Zacharias revealed in the interview, the format was the idea of the SCO.

He had chosen Schubert's D850 sonata. It's not one of the ones I feel I know especially well, and yet at the same time it felt very familiar and has a number of beautiful and memorable tunes. Overall Zacharias gave a fine performance. He brought a nice delicacy, yet this was tempered by his ability to effortlessly ratchet up the power and weight for the climaxes. It wasn't quite perfect, and there seemed to be a smattering of wrong notes, but amid the depth and colour he brought to the piece, they didn't really detract from a spellbinding performance.

The great C major is a trickier beast, one of the greatest symphonies ever written and a firm favourite of mine (one not nearly often enough heard in the concert hall - I last encountered it at the 2004 Edinburgh festival in the middle of the last visit by the Cleveland Orchestra). As ever, there is the conflict between whether to take the romantic approach of a Furtwangler or the classical approach of an Erich Kleiber, for this is a work that sits on the cusp of two eras.

Zacharias opted for a broadly classical approach, perhaps it is difficult to do otherwise when working with a chamber orchestra. That said, the opening was fairly slowly taken and for the most part the first movement didn't quite have the electricity of the best like, say, Mackerras's stunning recording with the same orchestra. Only in the final moments of the movement did it completely catch fire, then again at the start of the second and at points in the finale. Elsewhere there was nothing to match the relentless waves of emotion that batter you in, say, Rattle's recording. There was, though, some very fine playing throughout, the orchestra producing some lovely textures.

I have to admit, though, that to some extent my mind was a little elsewhere (as I couldn't entirely keep from worrying about my travel plans which were up in the air - except they weren't, which was precisely the problem).

It is a pity that Zacharias will not return next year. It is to be hoped this is merely a temporary blip.

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