“I commend the SCO for their daring and committed performance tonight”
Thursday’s concert at the Usher Hall was designed to please, and did not fail. Mendelsohn’s Overture The Hebrides, Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony span fifty years of the nineteenth century European Romantic genre and are all immensely satisfying upon the ear.
Yet when we talk of the Romantic genre we must not deceive ourselves with Batt-like portraits of composers gaining inspiration in the coffee house or at their desk by candlelight. These works are often borne out of insecurity and fear.
The Hebrides is really a tone poem in miniature, better known to us oldies as Fingal’s Cave, a short boat trip from Mull if you are interested. Mendelssohn struggled reconciling sonata form with tone painting, and wrote of the work as “the whole so-called development smells more of counterpoint than of blubber, gulls and salted cod”. In fact you would have to be an analytical cynic to agree with him, for it is a live, refreshing work and the SCO despatched it well.
Schumann’s Violin Concerto was also a cause of grief to its composer, who never heard it performed orchestrally. Swiftly composed in but thirteen days it was to languish for 125 years before its entry into the oeuvre after a series of family, political and technical issues. While fitting squarely into the romantic genre, and being a work of substance, it is nonetheless not without its problems. The first movement gives us soloist and orchestra working closely together more in the Baroque style, and this was exacerbated by imbalances between the two. Moreover, the positioning of instruments was curious, timpani within the main body, brass atop, basses to the left behind the first violins. Things came together better in the second slow movement when soloist Alina Ibragimova really came to the fore with confident bowing and tone. In the final movement it worked a treat and the band and soloist brought us romping home.
To me the ultimate version of the closing work, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, has to be Carlos Kleiber’s extraordinary, almost eccentric 1981 recording for Deutsche Grammaphon with the Vienna Philharmonic, knocked off in a fraction less than 40 minutes. I have heard so many stodgy, proscenium arch type versions that I come to this oft performed work with some dread. I was delighted with the way the SCO tackled it. They took the opening movement very fast indeed – absolutely no trace of stodge here – and I would rather have a racy, resolute performance such as this with a few flaws (the trumpets a little too loud, some tricky moments in the horn section) than an immaculate, more pompous central European type interpretation. As we worked through the piece the playing became more assured, steady ensemble playing in the second movement after the hectic first, a slightly over keen entry to the third with the strings nailing it with their con attacas, a confident brass opening the final with the orchestra playing like the highly polished ensemble they can be.
All live music is a risk. I commend the SCO for their daring and committed performance tonight, and congratulate both them and Principal Guest Conductor Emmanuel Krivine drafted in at short notice to replace the indisposed Robin Ticciati. It was to his and the band’s credit that you never would have guessed.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 March)
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