Sunday 21 November 2010

Superb Schuman and Brutal Beethoven from Storgards and the SCO

Somewhat inauspiciously, William Schuman is best known to me because whenever I import a new disc by Robert Schumann into iTunes and type his name it always wants to autocomplete it to Schuman because it comes first alphabetically and I have disc of his in my library meaning, annoyingly, I have to type Schumann out in full.  I may soon add a second to it, having heard his fifth symphony played by John Storgards and the SCO.  Scored for strings alone, it has in some respects a similar feel to works Tippett's concerto for double string orchestra (admittedly without the double) or even Ades' violin concerto in terms of the intensity.  Each of the three movements ends where it began, giving a nicely circular feel.  This is most strong in the extraordinary slow movement, starting soft and captivating before building to an intense climax and then fading away again.  However, it was true of the work as a whole, both start and finish being driven and full of energy.  The strings of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were on top form for it.

This was followed by an even newer piece: the UK premiere of Albert Schnelzer's oboe concerto (an SCO co-commission).  As a piece it didn't especially speak to me, feeling somewhat disjointed.  Rarely did it seem to evoke its title of The Enchanter.  At times, though, it was magical, such as in the delicate reintroduction of the orchestra after the first cadenza and also at several other points (mostly the quite passages).  Elsewhere I found it a little too much of the whir-plonk school of composition and in particular the solo part (taken by Francois Leleux, also the dedicatee) a little screechy, or, put another way, I don't think it showed off the instrument half as well as did the solo passages in Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin the previous evening.  Often after hearing a new piece, I find myself wishing I had some way to listen again but not this time, some very fine playing notwithstanding.

If the concerto was slightly disappointing it was nothing compared to what Storgards did with Beethoven's 7th symphony.  In fairness to him he has an impossible standard to live up to, since the last time I heard the SCO do this work, Charles Mackerras was on the podium.  Even before they started, one change was obvious - he wasn't going to follow Mackerras' practice in such repertoire and use period brass.  Other conductors who work the orchestra often follow this so it is interesting to see the opposite view.  To me it underscored the wisdom of using period brass.  Not only does the more brash sound seem to fit better with Beethoven, but it also cuts across the strings more clearly - in this case the brass often seemed to get lost (not a common problem).

However, the choice of instruments was the least of the problems.  The 7th, more than anything else, always feels to me like it's overflowing with joy.  Not so here.  Instead we got an account that was not simply hard driven, but also one which felt severe and angry, furious indeed, in the first movement especially.  It wasn't helped in this respect by being far too loud much of time.  The Queen's Hall is a small space and less is often more - in the first half Storgards seemed to understand this, not so in the second.  I suspect this coloured my view of the emotions and I might well have enjoyed it more in Glasgow.

One of the wonders of that Mackerras cycle was the detail he brought out in the wind parts, no so here as too often the strings washed them out.  In general the orchestra did not feel well balanced and too often the biggest climaxes felt a bit cacophonic.  But most of all, it was the lack of joy that spoilt it, especially in that third movement where you should be struggling to sit still and keep your toes from tapping.  Not on this occassion.

If you come out of Beethoven in a worse mood than when you went in, something has gone badly wrong.

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