Last weekend the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave two excellent concerts at the Queen’s Hall. On Thursday evening the full orchestra under John Storgårds was joined by the Chorus for a programme of Brahms and Schumann.
The first item on the programme was Brahms’ Serenade Nº 2, which I was really looking forward to hearing after the SCO’s outstanding rendition of the 1st Serenade under Thierry Fischer last month. The first thing one noticed as the orchestra assembled was the much smaller forces – just 21 players on stage, and no violins. Of these, the piccolist Yvonne Paterson remained silent until the final movement. I wasn’t necessarily convinced by the central Adagio non troppo which although wistful didn’t really seem to go anywhere, but the scherzo which preceded it was a much more confident affair. The Quasi menuetto fourth movement was funny to the point of being hilarious with its start stop rhythms and the orchestra played it with great dexterity and aplomb. The finale was another vigorous number with the piccolo finally getting its chance to shine – and under Yvonne Paterson’s nimble fingers shine it did. This was followed by more Brahms – this time late Brahms in the shape of his Vier ernste Gesänge or Four Serious Songs. The soloist for these was the German bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was a new name to me although according to the programme an SCO regular. On the form of this performance I hope the relationship continues. He sang from memory with every nuance of the text under his control and Storgårds’ orchestra matched him perfectly. (Incidentally the much larger orchestra was not Brahms’ but Günter Raphael’s orchestration of Brahms’ piano original.) The dark mood of the first three songs was lifted in the final setting of the hymn to love from 1 Corinthians 13 and orchestra and soloist brought the piece to a radiant conclusion.
The final piece of the evening was Schumann’s virtually unknown Mass which was probably being heard for the first time by most of the performers, let alone the audience. On first hearing this is a very curious work, which although probably neglected unjustly, does not really deserve a place alongside the greats of the choral canon. Stephan Loges was joined by English singers Rachel Nicholls (soprano) and Benjamin Hulett (tenor). The work begins with a slow and somewhat unsteady Kyrie which is followed by a very upbeat Gloria with a catchy (and somewhat repetitive) tune. This was the chorus’ third performance under their new chorusmaster Greg Batsleer and they did not seem quite as assured as in the first two excellent performances. Some entries were a little uncertain, particularly in the Gloria. The highlight of the work was the Offertorium, Tota pulchra est, which was beautifully sung by Rachel Nicholls acompanied by David Watkin on cello and Jan Waterfield on Organ. Unfortunately the excessive sentimentality of this piece does not fit very well with the rest of the Mass, probably one reason why it enjoys a small life as a solo item outside of it. On balance Schumann’s Mass is an incredibly fun piece and was ably performed by all concerned, although I am not convinced it would bear up to repeated listening.
On Sunday it was the last of the SCO’s chamber concerts for the season and the turn of six of the Orchestra’s string players to take to the Queen’s Hall stage to present a delightful programme of nineteenth and twentieth century music. They began with a brief quartettsatz by Wolf – his Italian Serenade. This charming and witty piece showed a lighter side to Wolf’s music than most listeners of his work might suspect and provided ample opportunity for the quartet of Ruth Crouch, Claire Sterling, Jane Atkins, and Su-a Lee to show of their skills.
Next they were joined by Simon Rawson and Donald Gillian for Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht – a much weightier piece. I have always preferred the original chamber version to the large orchestral version (although I would love to hear the full SCO strings perform the full version – It is a piece that would suit their strengths very well) This was a confident and assured performance, although the tempo was perhaps a little to fast to fully appreciate the breadth of the piece. In the all important second viola line, Simon Rawson was at times lacking a touch of assertiveness, particularly in the pizzicato moments, but all six players responded well to each other and produced a cohesive whole.
After the interval the six players returned for Brahms second String Sextet. This piece as Conrad Wilson’s notes reminded us provided a clear example of the ambiguity of Brahms, with the second movement’s ‘anti-scherzo’ a perfect complement to Thursday night’s almost-minuet. The finale brought us back to the same light-hearted nature which had begun the afternoon and was brought off with tremendous skill and enthusiasm by the players,