“No musician could fail to admire, and secretly envy, the sheer bravura and chutzpah of this performance…
Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert at the Queen’s Hall was a fascinating melange of the contemporary, romantic and classical. As a result we experienced a variety of different musical experiences in an exciting evening’s musical entertainment.
I suspect the main draw must have been the evergreen Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but more of this later. The gig kicked off with Brett Dean’s “Testament”, a work some years in evolution that, to quote the composer “in some way related to Beethoven’s life and music”. I personally found it hard to trace this link back to the great man, notwithstanding the composer’s consultation with the string section of the Berlin Philharmonic and studying of the Heiligenstadt Testament. There were strong influences of Honegger, Adams and even Lutoslawski, as well as some clear 19th century style melodic lines in what was a mosaic of musical styles. It made for an entertaining and lively start to the evening and the orchestra dispatched it with enthusiasm and considerable skill.
By way of a contrast followed Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Mussorgsky had planned to set eight songs by the poet Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, with whom he shared rooms. In the event he set only four of them and died before he got around to orchestrate them, which his eminent fans Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich were happy to do, as has contemporary Australian composer James Ledger. This latter was the version chosen for us. Perhaps an unconventional choice in view of his illustrious forebears, the orchestration undoubtedly worked in an atmospheric and almost mysterious way, including an extraordinary clarinet glissando in the third song Trepak (described as “death dances with a drunk in the forest at night). Leading contemporary Wagnerian and Estonian born Bass Ain Anger gave a deep, clear and resonant account of this very Russian work in the folk idiom. The power of the magnificent, but I repeat pleasingly clear bass voice was enthusiastically supported, especially by the brass, as it drew to its sombre, striking conclusion.
And so on to the popular, oft played, recorded and interpreted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor. One almost wonders what the point of performing this work is; how can one possibly bring anything new? Everyone, from Von Karajan, the wonderful Carlos Kleiber, and even the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever, has had a crack at this gloriously barmy work, and the only person who hasn’t heard it properly in the civilised world is probably Beethoven himself.
To their credit the SCO did pull a rabbit out of a hat. They went off at a cracking pace like the crews in the Boat Race, taut, together, on the money with every new passage and actually managed to convey the excitement of hearing the piece for the first time. A confident opening by the cellos in the Andante con moto made the most of the crescendo in the initial cadence and there were good dynamics and clarity even in the small supporting parts, in particular woodwind and pizzicato strings, and the more so of this latter in the subsequent Allegro. The final, fourth movement Allegro brought the work, and the evening, to a resounding conclusion.
So what to make of this interpretation of the well-known work? Full marks for enthusiasm as caution was thrown to the winds, not afraid of turning up the volume, raw, earthy, almost ‘street’, spirited and raucous. I am sure my school director of music would think that conductor Olari Elts was being a bit naughty with the work, and there were a number of bum notes and other flaws, particularly in the often exposed brass. However, no musician could fail to admire, and secretly envy, the sheer bravura and chutzpah of this performance. Roll over Beethoven!
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 7 April)
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