Brazen Edge to SCO’s Conductorless Concert

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Mozart, Janáček: Llŷr Williams (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Alexander Janiczek (director/violin), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 10.10.2013 (SRT)

Dvořák:    Notturno
Mozart:     Piano Concerto No. 23
Janáček:   Concertino
Mozart:     Symphony No. 38 “Prague”

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are masters at the art of the conductorless concert, and when the maestro directs from the leader’s chair, as did Alexander Janiczek tonight, the audience gets a very different experience to what they get when he takes to the podium: more communication, more instinct and, as often as not, much more listening to one another.  However, he still needs to pay attention to the basics of proportion, and all through tonight’s concert I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the balance just wasn’t right.  Nearly all of tonight’s concert just seemed, well, too loud!  There was an extrovert, almost brazen edge to the sound that might work in the larger surroundings of City Halls, the orchestra’s Glasgow base, but in the more intimate setting of Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall it was just overbearing.  It was particularly damaging for Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto.  Surely the most gentle and reflective of the composer’s mature concertos, tonight I felt like I was listening in the glare of full-beam headlights.  Other more basic issues of balance also affected Dvořák’s Notturno, breathed out in one great exhalation of string sound, but which was dominated by the first violins to the extent that the equally important second violin and viola counter-lines were swamped.

Llŷr Williams, a pianist who can be prone to bouts of eccentricity, was tonight on his best behaviour, but even he seemed a little tethered by the overbearing sound of the orchestr. The effect when he launched into his first movement cadenza was, consequently, sparkling and fleet-footed, as if the piano had finally taken flight.  One beneficial effect, though, was that the brightness of the outer movements meant that the inward-looking darkness of the Adagio was even more powerful.  However, the bright sound, and in particular the sheen on the strings, suited Mozart’s Prague Symphony much better (or maybe I’d just got used to it by the end of the concert), with a magisterial first movement and a lithe, agile Presto that went about its busy way with a smile and a wink.

There were no such problems of balance with Janáček’s Concertino, scored as it is for a piano plus six orchestral soloists.  Williams managed to tap into the wit and humour of the work, particularly in the first two movements, incisive dialogues for the piano with the horn and clarinet representing, according to the composer’s note, a “grumpy hedgehog” and “fidgety squirrel.”  There were even occasional moments of serenity, such as in the third movement, but for a sense of union and proportion between musicians, this piece could have taught the rest of the programme a thing or two.

Simon Thompson