United Kingdom Haydn: Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Ádám Fischer (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 28.2.2013 (SRT)
Haydn: Nelson Mass
Scena di Berenice
Symphony No. 101 “Clock”
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Neal Davies (bass)
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has such a distinguished list of guest artists that it’s easy to assume that their address book is so chockablock that they’ve had to close it. But then you get renowned maestros like Ádám Fischer who, at a sprightly 63 years old, tonight made his debut with them and he showed that there is room in that address book for at least one more. That he did so is doubtless a testament to both his and the orchestra’s artistic quality. I’m certain that they wanted to work together because they respect one another enormously, and the sparkling results were clear proof that this is a partnership that hit it off.
Few conductors today have as well established a pedigree in Haydn as Ádám Fischer (he has recorded all the symphonies, for a start), and hearing him in an all-Haydn programme seemed to bring out the best in him. At times, in fact, he conducted like a joyous child in a toy-shop full of treats. He had a wonderful grin on his face throughout his conducting of the “Clock” Symphony, and the sheer ebullience of his music-making shone through in every bar. The orchestra achieved a sound that was full-bodied and muscular while retaining a lightness that buoyed up each phrase, something felt in the delicacy of the string playing and the humour of the winds. These were most obvious in the slow movement, whence the symphony derives its nickname, but the brilliance of the finale was a thing to marvel at, the strings playing the main theme with knowing ease before piloting their way through the fugal sections with expert precision. There was plenty of Haydnesque humour, too, such as in the Trio of the third movement where the strings changed their sound so completely (dry and vibratoless to the point of sounding pinched) that they resembled a rusty hurdy-gurdy accompanying the flute.
This was a glorious end to the concert, but it began in storming form with a grandiose, architectural account of the Nelson Mass. I’ve often remarked that the SCO are world leaders at playing on modern instruments in period style, and a work like the Nelson Mass showcases this brilliantly. The opening, for example, sounded grand and imposing, with the rasp of the natural trumpets and timpani reminding us that this is a work forever associated with militarism and a hint of danger. The Benedictus carried a similar touch of threat, but Haydn doesn’t actually use this colour all that often in the work. Most of the work is much more sunny, and the major-key episodes were just as effective. Fischer shaped the great fugal moments with security and precision, and he was helped by outstanding singing from the SCO Chorus, who are turning into something of a crack team. I don’t think I ever remember them sounding so precise or having such clarity of diction as they do at present – a tribute to the hard work of both the singers and chorusmaster Gregory Batsleer. An excellent quartet of soloists contributed too, Neal Davies especially impressive in the imposing bass solo of the Qui tollis. Clare Wilkinson’s mezzo doesn’t have a lot to do, but she sounded lovely at the opening of the Agnus Dei. Andrew Staples had even less, but he contributed beautifully to the quartets.
Most thrilling of all, though, was the bright, exciting soprano of Elizabeth Watts. The finest moment of the mass was the soprano’s upward leap at the end of the Kyrie, and the Et incarnatus est carried heavenly beauty. Berenice was, if anything, even more electric, Watts inhabiting the wild mood swings of the heroine with the vigour and intensity of a true singing actress. Even the gentler moments evoked the brokenness of the character’s nature, and the concluding passages were a tour-de-force. In this, as in every aspect of the evening, Fischer directed the orchestra with vigour, pace and a sensitive ear for the music’s flow. Taken together, this five-star evening’s effect was far more than the sum of its parts, a reminder that it’s never too late to make a debut.