Mozart from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Mozart: Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Susan Gritton (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo), Steve Davislim (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (bass), James Gaffigan (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.5.2011 (SRT)

Overture, The Magic Flute

Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”


Music from the last years of Mozart’s life is a great way to end the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s season, and the sense of valediction inherent in the Requiem was made all the more poignant by the fact that this concert was originally to have been conducted by the much missed Sir Charles Mackerras. His replacement, James Gaffigan, created a sound world that was very different from that of the late Sir Charles, but every bit as exhilarating and compelling.

Gaffigan’s Mozart was unapologetically big-boned, evidenced by his slashing gestures to accentuate certain key phrases. Scale was apparent right from the opening of the Magic Flute overture, but was all the more remarkable for the fact that he conducted a truly miniature orchestra, small even by the SCO’s standards. The Jupiter Symphony never once suffered because of the small band: if anything it only added to the restrained delicacy of the slow movement and the sleek gracefulness of the Minuet. I loved the way Gaffigan accentuated the grace notes of the first movement, adding delicacy in the midst of splendour in a movement whose grandeur can sometimes overpower its performers. He also showed excellent control in the miraculous finale, measuring the unfolding contrapuntal wonder so that the listener could follow every episode. The first rate playing of the orchestra was always assured, but their small number only served to bring out the detail all the more clearly.

The playing in the Requiem was, if anything, even finer, the marvellous trio of trombones adding something extra special to the instrumental texture. Gaffigan’s manner was, again, large scale with small forces, only occasionally coming unstuck, such as in a rather underpowered climax at the end of the Lachrymosa. Shortly afterwards, though, the Sanctus sounded marvellous and he was vigorous in the counterpoint of Quam olim Abrahae. The SCO chorus, singing without scores, sounded very good, even if the sopranos tended to sag a little at the top lines. The fugal choruses teetered slightly but always turned out OK. The soloists were also fine, Cargill and Davislim singing with clarion-call brightness and Wilson-Johnson growing in stature after an unfortunately gravelly Tuba mirum. Only Susan Gritton sounded cloudy and a little off-colour.

As always with this orchestra, it’s the quality of the collective achievement that really matters, but the thing that impressed me the most about this evening was Gaffigan’s ability to get such a muscular sound from such a small-scale band.

Simon Thompson