Pinnock and Pires end SCO season on a high

Posted on May 14, 2010 by david

Last night the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performed their season finale to an almost full Usher Hall – only the Upper Circle had any significant empty seats. On paper this might have appeared to be a safe programme of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart but under the able baton of Trevor Pinnock the performance was anything but.

The first piece was Mendelssohn’s overture Die schöne Melusine which is a well known piece and regularly played by the orchestra. The piece began with wonderful rippling sounds from the woodwind, particularly from principal flute Alison Mitchell. This nicely combined with sumptuous playing from the strings who were on top form in the faster sections as well. Trevor Pinnock’s tempo was brisk but never rushed and capture the breadth of the piece perfectly.
This was followed by one of my favourite piano concertos of all time – Beethoven’s 4th – performed by the great Portuguese/Brazilian pianist Maria João Pires. Although she was perhaps a little too loud in the first movement given the size of the orchestra, she never drowned them out. The fast runs and trills were very clear and brilliant. In the second movement Trevor Pinnock took a very slow tempo – probably the slowest I’ve heard – but this was no bad thing as it gave the music space – particularly in the broad string writing. Unfortunately Pires was less than perfect in the finale as there were a few slips despite a not excessively fast tempo. Nevertheless, the piece played out to a gloriously upbeat tempo with the orchestra again on top form. For an encore, pianist and conductor joined each other at the keyboard for a wonderful duet – probably the only occasion I shall ever see the harpsichordist Pinnock at a 9 ft concert grand. The identity of the piece is unfortunately unknown to me (early Mozart or one of Beethoven’s WoO perhaps). [edit: it was (probably) the last movement from Mozart's Sonata for four hands, KV123A.] This hilarious piece ran as a series of witty repartees between the pianists and had the Usher Hall audience laughing out loud.

The final piece of the night, and indeed the SCO 09/10 season, was Mozart’s Symphony Nº 39. this is not as well known as some of Mozart’s other late symphonies – indeed it was the first time I had heard it. It was a wonderful piece that was great fun to listen to. There was more superb woodwind playing, this time from clarinettists Max Martin and Tom Verity in the trio section of the third movement. The finale was played at a rip-roaring pace and gave the clarinets more chance to shine, echoing figures with the flute.

This was a glorious end to an excellent SCO season and I eagerly look forward to next season which begins as this one ended with Mozart – Don Giovanni under principal conductor Robin Ticciati.

SCO/Elts play Ligeti, Tüür and Sibelius

Posted on May 03, 2010 by david

Saturday night saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play what looked on paper to be an interesting programme of twentieth and twenty-first century music under the baton (or rather hands) of their Estonian principal guest conductor Olari Elts. The audience in the Queen's Hall was somewhat disappointing although quite good for an Edinburgh performance of new music (how I wish I could never say that!).

The first piece on the programme was György Ligeti's Concerto Românesc. I don't know much Ligeti but what I know I tend to like; and this proved to be one of his best I've heard so far. It was an absolutely stonking piece played with the incredible dexterity one expects from the SCO. Particular mention must go to guest leader Alexander Janiczek for his outstanding solos particularly in the fourth movement. The third, offstage, horn in the third movement was especially effective in the Queen's Hall acoustic. Exciting as this was, ten minutes of great music does not a great programme make. The rest of the evening produced fine fare but not at such a high standard. The main draw, at least for myself, was the world première of the eighth Symphony by Elts' compatriot Erkki-Sven Tüür (technically the second performance as the true première had been the night before in Glasgow). This was a very finely wrought piece - some might say overwrought - and would probably have been impenetrable if not for Tüür's extremely informative pre concert discussion of the principle features of the piece. As it was the talk (accompanied by some rather doubtful, but incredibly useful, midi synthesised samples of key moments) made it at lot easier to know what to listen out for. The symphony was an interesting work and if I am not particularly inclined to revisit it in future, I shall certainly look out for more of Tüür's work as he seems to be a talented composer (at least with seven previous symphonies plus a good deal of other material there should be plenty to chose from, although given that I have not heard his name before I have no idea how much has been recorded)

The second half of the concert was taken up with Sibelius's third symphony - a fine work, and doubtless the only familiar item on the programme for much of the audience. The performance was not the finest I have heard, and this was obvious despite the fact that I have never heard it live before. Particularly in the first movement the sound was muddy at times, with Elts failing do bring out individual instrumental lines. Nonetheless the second and third movements improved, and there was obviously a great relationship between orchestra and conductor and the applause at the end showed the performance was well received. It seemed to be a case of the whole being greater than its parts as despite the failings the general impression was one of an excellent performance.

From this concert it is obvious where Elts’ strengths lie. His handling of the Ligeti and the Tüür was exemplary, as would be expected giving his background in contemporary music. His Sibelius was much less assured and he could do with taking a leaf out of the many excellent interpreters the piece has recieved over the years (not all of them Scandinavian - Mark Elder’s excellent live recording with the Hallé a few years back being a case in point).