Balance and Beautiful Synthesis from Two Soloist-Directors with the SCO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Berg, Beethoven: Alexander Janiczek (violin/director), Llŷr Williams (piano/director), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 12.1.2017. (SRT)

Mozart – Overture, La Clemenza di Tito; Violin Concerto No. 4

Berg – Three Pieces from Lyric Suite

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

Over the last few season, Llŷr Williams and Alexander Janiczek have been embarking on a series with the SCO whereby Janiczek plays a Mozart concerto while directing the orchestra, and Williams does the same with a Beethoven concerto. Tonight marked a triumphant conclusion to that series, with a performance of the Emperor concerto that brought some of the audience to their feet at the end. The first movement radiated energy and majesty, while the slow movement moved from its dreamy opening, through song-like intensity when the piano finally took up the tune, to beautiful synthesis during that divine moment when the winds play the tune and the piano gently ambles around it. Williams can cut an eccentric figure on the stage, but the quality of his pianism is beyond doubt, and in Beethoven he is almost peerless.  The rowdy finale set the seal on the whole thing, cocking a snook as it galloped past with exhilarating flair.

My only criticism was Williams’ tendency to deploy the timps like heavy artillery in the first movement, something Janiczek was guilty of in the Tito overture, which swung rather absurdly between the lyricism of its second subject and the in-your-face blast of its first. Thankfully, his Mozart concerto was much better balanced, Janiczek tailoring the sound of his violin very carefully so as to make it sound just right for this size of orchestra, albeit a little thin in places. Still, I liked the songfulness of his solo line, particularly in the Andante, and there was a playful sense of give-and-take in the finale. This joint Mozart/Beethoven series has been a great idea, and it speaks highly of the orchestra’s ability to draw out quality collaborations at the highest level.

It also speaks of their versatility that they could turn with equal ease to the very different sound universe of Berg’s Lyric Suite, which surged and pulsed with unruly brilliance. The sound was much bigger here, remarkable from the same musicians who had just played Rococo Mozart, and the hyper-expressive, densely layered orchestral textures were completely engrossing. Every so often a line would emerge from the texture and subside again, be it the surging cellos, spidery violins or quasi-Mahlerian warmth of the Adagio appassionato, making the effect feel both magical and intoxicating. I can’t think of many other orchestras who’d do such a good job of pulling off three centuries of the Austro-German musical tradition in the space of one evening.

Simon Thompson

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