Acclaimed Japanese Conductor Champions Bach and Mendelssohn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn & Bach: Peter Harvey (baritone), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki (conductor); Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 14.11.2013 (SRT)

Mendelssohn: Sinfonia No. 8
Symphony No. 5 “Reformation”
Bach: Cantata 82: “Ich habe genug”

After last year’s debut of Ádám Fischer, the SCO tonight continued to broaden its rostrum of guest artists with Masaaki Suzuki, one of the world’s most acclaimed interpreters of the music of J. S. Bach.  You could tell right from the start of Ich habe genug that he brought to this work a vast reserve of experience.  The gentle lilt of the rhythm and the halo of string sound ushered in a sonic experience so warm and enveloping that it felt as though the lullaby had begun early.  The solo oboe, stunningly played by Robin Williams, wove beautifully in and out of the vocal line in the first movement, and then blended imperceptibly with the rest of the strings in the finale.  Suzuki crafted the whole cantata as a journey from resignation to determination, judging the mood of each aria to perfection and taking the listener on a real journey.  Peter Harvey sounded flexible and vigorous in the finale but ill at ease in the earlier arias, sounding stretched and a little insecure in the quiet and the high-lying moments.

It’s a nice idea to combine Bach’s music with that of Mendelssohn, Bach’s great rehabilitator in the 19th Century, and it’s an equally good idea to contrast one of his mature symphonies with one of his earliest.  The Eighth Sinfonia dates from 1822 when the composer was only 13 years old, but you wouldn’t guess it from the vigour and confidence with which he scores the outer movements.  It helps that this later version is scored for brass, woodwind and timpani, lending the whole work an element of martial swagger, but it’s still incredible that he was capable of so much so young.  The most extraordinary thing is the slow movement, scored almost exclusively for the middle strings, with a rhythm and rawness that harks back to the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh.

The orchestra was enlarged for the Reformation Symphony, even spilling off the stage to accommodate the trombones, and the acoustic of the Queen’s Hall didn’t always flatter the bigger sound.  However, Suzuki was keen on bringing out the contrasts of the work, particularly in the first movement that began with suggestive mystery from the strings before developing into a genuinely stormy Allegro.  The strings sounded richer and more conventionally Romantic in the Andante, before yielding to the unstoppable momentum of the Ein Feste Burg theme in the finale, which built to an exciting climax and a thrilling close.

Speaking of Romantic Symphonies, next week Robin Ticciati begins his series conducting all four Schumann symphonies.  For more details, click here.

Simon Thompson


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