SCO Make Mozart and Poulenc Sparkle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Poulenc: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Piotr Anderszewski (director/piano), Stephanie Gonley (director/violin), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 3.5.2018. (SRT)

Mozart – Piano Concertos No.17 in G major K.453 and No.24 in C minor K.491
PoulencSinfonietta FP141

Whether by accident or design, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra tend to do one conductor-less concert per year, and tonight saw the return of regular collaborator Piotr Anderszewski to direct from the keyboard in two Mozart concertos. It’s difficult to imagine a more contrasting pair of works in Mozart’s entire mature output: No.17 in G is light and carefree, while No.24 is a brooding C minor tragedy that seems to throw open the doors to the existentialist angst of the nineteenth century. As works designed to show the performers at their diverse best, therefore, they were well chosen.

The orchestra approached No.17 with a dance-like lightness that suited it extremely well, for all that the piano threatened to overpower the orchestra on its first entry, suggesting that some balance issues were still to be sorted out. After a while I stopped noticing it, however, and settled into the delightfully sunny mood of the first movement, something maintained even as the piano found more searching depths in the development section. Those insights went even deeper in the minor key sections of the slow movement, which were strangely and surprisingly poignant, before the skipping variations of the finale that felt like a bouncing ball, right through to its effervescent, galloping coda.

No.24, on the other hand, seemed to come from a different musical universe, with wiry, spectral string tone, underpinned by the raw thwack of natural timps. The orchestra’s approach to the twelve-tone first theme was deliberate and probing, tempered by sweet winds that made a beautiful contrast for the second theme. The piano’s consistent attempts to pour on balm, however, were repeatedly thwarted by an orchestral force that came close to malevolence; something that came into its own in the insidious, creeping main theme of the finale which gathered force like an avalanche, the ending coming like a mighty full stop. In between we dared to pause for breath to bask in the radiant simplicity of the slow movement, in which Anderszewski eked out every ounce of beauty before the coming storm.

In between, for an even more extreme mood swing, Poulenc’s Sinfonietta came like a sparkling aperitif, each movement dazzling in a different way, and going from the cartoon-ish pizzazz of the outer movements to the gleam of the string tone in the lovely slow movement. It was directed by leader Stephanie Gonley, who produced a whole lot of effect with gestures that were incredibly subtle and unaffected. In fact, if you hadn’t known to look for her you’d have thought the sound was being produced of its own accord, so natural and tight was the whole effect. Indeed, the togetherness of the performance was all the more remarkable when you consider that Poulenc seems to build in booby traps throughout the score with umpteen zany possibilities for it go pear-shaped.

The orchestra and Anderszewski are about to take this programme on a European tour. Lucky them, and lucky audiences.

Simon Thompson

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