Elegant Performances of Haydn, Bach, and Mendelssohn from SCO

20/04/2018

Haydn, C P E Bach, Mendelssohn: Philip Higham (cello), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Richard Egarr (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 19.4.2018. (SRT)

Philip Higham

Haydn – Symphony No.93 in D major Hob.I/93
C P E BachCello Concerto in A minor H.432, Wq.170
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56, ‘Scottish’

There aren’t many conductors who would have the chutzpah to launch into a symphony’s opening chord while the audience was still clapping him onto the stage; but then there aren’t many conductors like Richard Egarr. Egarr’s regular collaborations with the SCO have become the parts of the season that I look forward to the most, and it’s typical of his mischievous energy that he should not only begin while we still applauded but also be able to convey the music’s energy and warmth so persuasively all the while (and silence an errant cougher with a death-stare a few minutes later!). Egarr knows this late-Classical repertoire as well as anyone, and I loved the way his Haydn leapt out of the score, the opening allegro conveying all the sway of a waltz, with a slow movement of elegance and style, and a lolloping Menuet with an incongruously martial Trio. The SCO played for him with minimal vibrato but still with oodles of energy, and that meant that the finale was pure opera buffa, with chattering strings and rumbustious winds.

If his Mendelssohn was more serious, then it was also more dramatically varied, with a twinge more vibrato adding more drama to the sighing introduction and the mellow slow movement, uncommonly beautiful here, with a real insight into the context of the music’s Romanticism. In fact, while in the past I’ve remarked that European touring orchestras often bring the ‘Scottish’ symphony to Edinburgh, it was refreshing here to hear the symphony so firmly grounded in its European context, with the spirit of Schumann hovering close, and string melodies that sounded like late Schubert. The faster music was exhilaratingly energetic, the second movement skirling brilliantly but also lyrically, but overall I loved the transparency of the textures, especially the cellos’ countermelody at the beginning of the first movement’s recapitulation, a gorgeous moment of clarity that seemed to slot into place like the solution to a Rubik’s cube.

If I have said before that Egarr’s visits are an SCO highlight, then I have frequently said the same about the occasions where they draw a concerto soloist from their own ranks, and so it was tonight as the orchestra’s principal cello, Philip Higham, stepped forward to play the concerto by C P E Bach. It was, in fact, the same concerto that then Principal Bassoon Peter Whelan played with them back in 2015, and the music has all of Emmanuel’s energy and iconoclastic refusal to play by the rules. What struck me most about this performance, however, was the way the restless energy of the orchestral writing contrasted with the flowing lyricism of Higham’s cello line. Throughout he played with the songfulness of an operatic aria, balancing the cantabile line with brilliant agility in the devilish passagework. Best of all was the slow movement where, even more than usual, orchestra and conductor sounded as though they were finishing one another’s sentences, Sturm und Drang giving way to refined elegance and poignant emotion.

Simon Thompson

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