United KingdomBach, Mendelssohn: Mhairi Lawson (sop), Daniela Lehner (mezzo), Susannah Bedford (alto), Andrew Tortise (tenor), Peter Harvey (bar), SCO Chorus, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 28.04.2016 (SRT)
Bach: Overture from Suite No. 3; Magnificat
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 “Reformation”; Verleih uns Frieden
I love Richard Egarr’s work with the SCO. He consistently brings out the best in them, and tonight was no exception. He turned Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony into a suspense drama with urgent pacing, glittering colours and even a special guest appearance from the Serpent. The mysterious strings of the opening seemed to set the scene for a miniature epic, and the reappearances of the Dresden Amen seemed to act like the tension release in an otherwise thrilling first movement, with rapid tempi and razor-sharp string attack beneath those portentous fanfares. Those same strings achieved a lovely sighing effect for the slow movement, and then the choir of winds that began the finale with Luther’s Fest Burg theme sounded sensationally assertive, as close to bel canto as you’ll find in Mendelssohn’s output. Egarr’s shaping of that theme gave structure and impetus to a finale that can sound repetitious, and the music moved in a straight line towards the coda that put an unarguable full stop not just on the movement but on the whole symphony. Thrilling, but also very refreshing.
You could say the same for their Bach. The star of the Third Suite’s Overture was undoubtedly the trio of trumpets, gleaming so brightly that you nearly needed sunglasses, and punctuating an orchestral texture that was full of swagger in the outer sections and had clear-as-crystal precision in the central section, especially from the violins. The Magnificat was similarly blessed, the trumpets regularly stealing the show but not detracting from the biting orchestral attack, despite Egarr’s sometimes bizarre approaches to the tempo. Pick of the soloists was the agile (if rather breathy) Andrew Tortise and the forthright baritone of Peter Harvey.
All of which, unfortunately, leaves the SCO Chorus as a bit of a footnote; a shame, considering that this concert was meant to be their 25th birthday celebration. The urgency and precision of the orchestra exposed their often foggy sound, and they couldn’t quite find the requisite precision to keep them in step with the energy from the musicians. They were regularly behind Egarr’s (admittedly pacy) beat and, while they always caught him up eventually, Bach’s busy counterpoint seemed too often to be a bit much for them. It’s baffling, considering that I’ve heard them so much better elsewhere. They sounded much more comfortable in Mendelssohn’s (far more relaxed) Verleih uns Frieden where they managed a warm, chocolaty sound that suited the text’s plea for peace, matched by a gently flowing cello line.