González Highlights Two Weber Concerti

16/12/2012

 Beethoven, Weber, Mozart: Peter Whelan (bassoon), Maximiliano Martín (clarinet), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Pablo González (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 15.12.2012 (SRT)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Weber: Bassoon Concerto in F
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor
Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor

Carl Maria von Weber has always struggled to shake off a reputation as one of classical music’s greatest “also-rans”. With the notable exception of Der Freischütz, all of his operas are hobbled by dramatic problems despite containing some excellent music, and he had the dashed bad luck of composing at the same time as Beethoven and Schubert whose sheer stature has relegated him out of the premier league. His works, while not exactly neglected, have been pushed somewhat to the back seat, and that includes his concertos. It’s not that they’re little known; it’s just that they’re not performed nearly as frequently as they deserve. They contain some fantastic music, not least the Clarinet Concerto heard here which has all the dark melodrama of the creepiest parts of Freischütz while containing passages of compellingly poetic beauty. Likewise, the Bassoon Concerto sparkles with melodic invention which refuses to take itself seriously. Both concertos have a good sense of to and fro between soloist and orchestra and, despite the trumpets and drums, the solo instrument never feels awkward or overwhelmed.

It helped tremendously that the soloists for this evening were drawn from the ranks of the SCO itself. The SCO has always distinguished themselves as a collaborative ensemble, and that reaches a culmination when it is their own principals that step in for a concerto. The whole hall radiated good will for both Martín and Whelan, but their ovations were nevertheless well earned. It was amazing how much Whelan could make the bassoon line flow in the outer movements, reaching a lyrical peak in the long spans of the central Adagio. Likewise, Martín saw himself as the central protagonist in a drama, taking centre stage while collaborating with his colleagues. There was a fantastic singing quality to his playing which meant that you could forgive any momentary slips of timing in the faster passages. He turned the slow movement into a beautifully expressive song without words, all the more lovely because of the interaction between himself and the horn trio in the orchestra. The only other time I have heard this Weber concerto live was about 15 years ago, also played by the SCO with their then principal clarinettist. It’s a tribute to the standard of their musicians, as well as to their sense of cooperation, that they still follow this approach so powerfully today.

Elsewhere the thrills were provided slightly less consistently by Spanish conductor Pablo González making, so far as I could see, his debut with the SCO. His Egmont overture was taut and exciting, controlled with a keen ear for the unfolding drama and bristling with an almost volcanic intensity. He built the sound from the bass up with a particularly prominent richness of the lower lines anchoring the other parts around it, and a thunderous but admirably accurate timpani part. The Mozart was more equivocal, though. The first movement was played with a prominent sense of legato, not in itself damaging, but to my ears robbing the music of some of its brio, not helped by the relaxed tempo. This sleek approach helped to bring a really lovely reading of the Andante, and of the wind-led trio of the Menuet, but the line of the finale was broken up by the rather odd insertion of a pause before the second subject, and the coda seemed oddly inconclusive.

Simon Thompson

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