Manze Displays Intelligence and Ability to Communicate

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Schumann, Martinsson, Beethoven: David Watkin (cello), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 26.01.2012 (SRT)

Mendelssohn: Trumpet Overture
Schumann: Cello Concerto
Martinsson: A. S. In Memoriam
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1

Andrew Manze’s concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have become annual events, and I always look forward to them. Manze is a conductor possessed of a very keen intelligence who has clearly thought very deeply about everything he conducts. He has a sensational ear for detail, and he is a brilliant communicator into the bargain, both with the audience and with the musicians. Take his reading of the Beethoven symphony, for example, which crackled with life. The first movement’s introduction was delicate and precise before giving way to a lithe, flexible Allegro. The slow movement encompassed everything from pristine delicacy in the strings to ebullient blustering in the tutti passages, Manze delicately grading the sound to produce a wide range of effects. The trio was sprightly without going over the top, while the winds sounded almost rustic in the Trio, and the finale buzzed with instrumental detail, not least the precise drum strokes (in what is normally played as a roll) and the horns which sounded very close to blowing a raspberry!

He was just as good at highlighting the less familiar details of Mendelssohn’s Trumpet Overture. It’s a slightly problematic work which falls between the two stools of programme and abstract music, but it’s pleasing to the ear. The outer sections are enjoyably extrovert, with some perky, Haydnesque writing for the winds, but the lengthy passages of undulating strings with overhead woodwinds give a strong foretaste of the Hebrides Overture, which was just around the corner. Manze even chatted to the audience to prepare us for Martinsson’s A. S. In Memoriam. As you might guess from the name, it’s a tribute to the hyper-Romanticism of Schönberg (his Pelleas and Verklärte Nacht days) but it works very well in its own right, with some ultra-lush harmonies. Scored for 15 solo strings (in this version) it’s harmonically extremely rich but instrumentally fairly transparent, and some of the chording, especially towards the end, is sublimely beautiful.

I said before Christmas that there is a special warmth in the air of the Queen’s Hall when the SCO chooses concerto soloists from among their own ranks, and so it was tonight when principal cello David Watkin stepped forward to play the Schumann concerto. Again, that sense of partnership between musicians who know each other well was evident in the atmosphere, and Watkin produced some gorgeous sounds from his instrument, particularly the lavish middle range and the chocolaty lower notes which caught the cello’s resonance perfectly. He was at his finest in the slow movement which he phrased as one long, seamless flow of melody, and the orchestra accompanied him sympathetically throughout, particularly impressively in the accompanied cadenza that ends the work. As well as showcasing a great conductor, this evening was more proof of the gold that the SCO holds within its own ranks. I’m still not convinced by the work, though; to me the Schumann concerto still sounds bitty and lacking inspiration, despite the advocacy that it has recently found in many quarters. This is now the second time the orchestra have played it in three seasons, but I think I’d now be quite happy to give it a rest for a while!

Simon Thompson