Queyras’s Period Cello Sings in Haydn but Bloch’s Beethoven is ‘Wearyingly Turbo-Charged’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Escaich, Haydn, Beethoven: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Alexandre Bloch (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 20.4.2017. (SRT)

Escaich – Baroque Song

Haydn – Cello Concerto in D Op.101

Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” Op.55

Alexandre Bloch is a young conductor on the way up, a bit like Robin Ticciati was when he took on the mantle of being the SCO’s chief conductor. The SCO is fantastic at nurturing and promoting talent like this, and Bloch is in many ways a natural fit for them, his boyish energy sparking off them and energising their playing.

Unfortunately, however, he conducted the Eroica as though he was trying to fulfil a stereotype. The outer movements were incredibly energetic, and the tutti chords were pleasingly precise. However, it was all a bit brash and unremittingly in-your-face, with the climaxes on overdrive and the timpani dialled up to eleven almost throughout.  That worked well enough for the Scherzo, which was turbocharged all over (though the normally brilliant SCO horns sounded oddly woolly in the Trio), but the Eroica needs more light and shade to work properly, and Bloch’s jack-in-the box persona on the podium became a rather wearying curiosity after a while. Nor did I like the look-at-me cleverness of his use of solo strings in the early variations of the finale. He was cheered to the rafters at the end but, then, showmen nearly always are.

Nor was I that keen on his choice of opener by his teacher, Thierry Escaich. Escaich is an organist as well as a composer, and his Baroque Song takes inspiration from some of Bach’s organ chorales, contrasting their well-crafted symmetry with some destabilising modern harmonies that seek to drive the Baroquerie off its course. Like an organist, he tends to organise this through blocks of sound, almost like the entry of the pedals, and I liked the way he did this in the first two movements, culminating in a surging aria for solo cello, sounding intensely expressive from SCO principal Philip Higham. It lost its edge in the final movement, however, which seemed to be lifted from another piece altogether. The Bachian comparisons seemed to be forgotten, as though Escaich had gotten bored of his own idea, and instead they were replaced with vigorous passagework and a slightly zany ending that sounded strangely tacked-on.

For real class, we had the brilliant cello playing of Jean-Guihen Queyras in Haydn.  Queyras plays a baroque cello (a 1696 Gioffredo Cappa), but you wouldn’t guess it from the expressiveness of the sound he gets from it, undoing every preconception about gut strings and period instruments. There is songfulness to his playing – moments of rapture, even – that I’ve never heard from a period cello before, and the results are delightful, be it in the quiet busyness of the first movement, the gorgeously broad lyricism of the great Adagio, or the graceful Rondo finale. Queyras played this, and every movement, with a smile and a wink to the orchestra, as if to say “What fun!”, and they responded with a beautifully crafted sound that seemed tailor-made to match his. The chocolate, deep rosewood sound of his encore (the prelude from Bach’s third suite) was confirmation that his was cello playing of the highest order, and he needed no showiness to prove it.

Simon Thompson

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