Genial Swensen Renews Old Acquaintances with Lustrous Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Debussy, Bizet: Alison Mitchell (flute), Sivan Magen (harp), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 09.01.2014 (SRT)

Mozart: Symphony No. 32
Concerto for Flute and Harp
Debussy: Danses Sacrée et Profane
Bizet: Symphony in C

I first head Joseph Swensen conduct the SCO in the late 1990s when he was their principal conductor and I was a student at EdinburghUniversity.  I still remember well the Beethoven symphony cycle he conducted with them, and in many ways his time with the orchestra marks my inauguration into regular concert-going, so I’m automatically well disposed towards him when he comes back.

Clearly the rest of the SCO is too, evident from the frequent smiles on their faces and the sense of geniality that spread throughout all of this evening’s programme.  Swensen brought a real kick to Mozart’s Symphony No. 32, with particularly brilliant outer sections, and his reading of Bizet’s Symphony similarly crackled with ebullience and, in the latter movements, the swing of the dance.  The orchestra responded, not only by leaning into each phrase with him, but with playing of style and finesse, particularly from the winds who sounded fantastic in the first movement’s graceful second subject and in the slow march of the Adagio.

The SCO frequently pull concerto soloists from their own ranks.  I’ve said before that when it’s one of their own this leads to a special sense of interplay between soloist and orchestra, and Alison Mitchell, who is well established in this field, played the flute with delightful grace and panache throughout.  Her partner, Sivan Magen, was a little understated in the opening movement, but came to the fore in the finale with plenty of virtuosity and a sense of revelling in Mozart’s themes.  Everyone was at their finest in the slow movement, however, one of Mozart’s loveliest creations.  While the outer movements were all about grace and finesse, this central movement seemed to hang suspended in time, all cares and troubles falling away in playing of beautiful stillness.

The biggest revelation of the evening, however, came in Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane, a new work to me but one I’ll definitely look for again.  Written to test out the Pleyel company’s new chromatic harp, it has a beautiful dream-like quality, with Debussy showing that he was an expert at balancing the sound of the harp against the orchestra (in a way that Mozart wasn’t).  His open writing for the strings put me in mind of works by English composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and the dusky, autumnal playing of the orchestra was spellbinding, with the harp interacting with them delicately, providing a touch of gentle exoticism.

Simon Thompson