United Kingdom Weber, Mozart, Beethoven: Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 18.04.2015 (SRT)
Weber: Symphony No. 1
Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 2 K417
Mozart: Concert Rondo K371
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8
I always look forward to Richard Egarr’s concerts with the SCO because he is such a great communicator. That’s not just true in terms of the music – though true it is, with his ability to make familiar things fresh and exciting – but also, tonight, verbally. There’s a lot more of this these days, and it’s refreshing when a conductor talks to the audience and breaks down the invisible wall between them. Egarr’s mischievous side came out when he broke off Beethoven’s Eighth symphony after four bars to tell us that this was Beethoven’s most extreme symphony. He explained that it doesn’t have any moderate dynamic markings in it at all, and I then found myself listening all the harder to see if he was correct. (He was.) His performance carried lots of careful shading in it, showing that Egarr had thought carefully about every phrase, and he encouraged the orchestra to turn things up to eleven, the frequent outbursts in the outer movements sounding like punctuation rather than intrusions. Not everything worked: the odd unwritten rall wasn’t always successful, and getting the brass to stand up in the final minutes felt a bit laboured, but for freshness and clarity this Beethoven was hard to beat.
Weber’s First Symphony didn’t need any introduction to help it sound fresh and exciting: it’s ebullient and rather unruly from start to finish but, Egarr explained, it’s helpful to think of it like instrumental opera (“imagine wolves and fairies and that sort of thing…”). It’s not a sophisticated work, but in the outer movements Egarr used the pauses, lurching key changes and dialogues between instruments to suggest suspense and excitement rather than immaturity and inexperience. Most operatic of all was the C minor Andante with its poignant oboe cantilena, but in this performance, with its shuddering strings and brass outbursts, it made me think that, even with the 20-year old composer, we’re not that far from the drama of the Wolf’s Glen.
I also look forward to hearing the orchestra’s own musicians playing the solos for their concertos, and Alec Frank-Gemmill, the principal horn, has shown in the past that he can carry this off with flair and astonishing skill. I loved his Strauss concerto last year, and tonight he showed another side to his remarkable talent by playing the two Mozart works on a natural horn. He and his partners often play these in the ensemble, but it’s the first time I’ve heard it solo. It brings some definite impurities of tone, but the gains in authenticity are welcome, and Egarr matched this with string tone that was pared back and free of vibrato. It also makes you realise why Mozart chose the keys he did. Frank-Gemmill rose to the challenge marvellously, and it was astonishing that, with the technical problems, he still managed to achieve such ringing legato tone, especially lovely in the concerto’s Andante. His control of what can be an unruly instrument was very impressive throughout and, for all its limitations, he still managed to get extraordinary emotional range out of it, with technically impressive staccatos and trills, not to mention the leaps of the jaunty Rondo.