Conductorless Concert Harks Back to Classical Era

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven: Scottish Chamber Orchestra , Alexander Janiczek (leader/director), Piotr Anderszewski (piano/director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 21.2.2012 (SRT)

Schubert: Overture in D major “In the Italian Style”
Mozart: /b Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K488)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major (K508)
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge

A rare treat this evening: a conductorless concert! As well as providing some outstanding music, this concert caused me to reflect on a few things, namely, how must it have been when it was like this all the time? After all, though we see it as a rarity nowadays, Mozart and Beethoven premiered their own concertos by directing from the keyboard. While we unquestionably gained a lot from the rise of the Maestro in the nineteenth century, perhaps we lost a bit too, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of what the circumstances were like when these works were premiered.

It also made me reflect that there aren’t many ensembles in this country, or even further afield, that could pull off a concert like tonight. For a set-up like this evening’s to work it has to revolve around community, communication and, most importantly, trust. The guest directors the SCO brought in for this evening have developed that last quality through long and productive partnerships with the orchestra. Both Alexander Janiczek and Piotr Anderszewski have worked very closely with the SCO before, and so they are perfect candidates to take on a job like directing from their instrument.

Janiczek is a musicians’ musician, notably modest when it came to taking the applause, and when he led both Schubert’s Overture and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge you sensed that he did so from a position of knowing this orchestra from the inside out. The Schubert was perky, swinging, light-hearted, and just a little inconsequential. The Grosse Fuge, on the other hand, carried an incredibly rich sonority in its full orchestral version. The performance was full of searching and had a great sense of strain and struggle, which is surely whence so much of this music derives its power. It’s especially impressive that they managed this Everest of counterpoint without a conductor: it’s one thing doing it with the members of a string quartet, but quite another unifying and directing 24 musicians while playing yourself.

Anderszewski perhaps has a higher international profile than Janiczek, but his relationship with the orchestra is still a very close one. When directing both these concertos he did so with a face of intense concentration and a sense of trying to massage the sound out of the instruments of the orchestra. He succeeded in coaxing a beautiful sighing quality to the string sound of No. 23, which permeated all the movements with a touch of beauty that was only a step away from melancholy, and the winds of the slow movement were focused and passionate.

The orchestra then produced an entirely different sound for No. 25, this time majestic, imperious, and in places even a little pompous. Throughout, though, Anderszewski’s playing was a marvel of musicality and life. He had barrels of virtuosity, most notably in the muscular cadenza of No. 25’s first movement, but he provided sound of delicate beauty when required, especially towards the end of No. 23’s slow movement when the main theme was recapped as a bare whisper. Throughout these concertos Anderszewski led by listening and by responding to every nuance of both Mozart’s score and the orchestra’s response to it. His final encore, a gentle and incredibly moving piece of Bach, touched the divine.

Simon Thompson