Scottish Chamber Orchestra were on their finest form in Edinburgh for Joseph Swensen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Suk, Janáček, Dvořák: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Joseph Swensen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 31.10.2019. (SRT)

Joseph Swenson

Suk – Serenade for Strings

JanáčekThe Fiddler’s Child

Dvořák – Symphony No.5

What’s your favourite Dvořák symphony? The later ones always get the headlines, and the Ninth undoubtedly leads in the popularity stakes, but my heart will always belong to the Fifth. Such an effortless effusion of melodies! For sheer singability, I doubt whether Dvořák ever wrote anything better, and I cannot listen to it without a huge smile spreading across my face. It helps when it is performed as well as it was here, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on their finest form for their returning Conductor Emeritus, Joseph Swensen. Dvořák’s ray of Bohemian sunshine shone beautifully through the string writing, standing in contrast to the gurgling winds (utterly enchanting in the opening) and majestic brass. That made the first movement utterly beguiling, and the Scherzo had me tapping my foot while grinning like an idiot. The glowing electricity of the finale hints at the architectural genius that would follow in the later symphonies, but I wouldn’t have traded any of those works for this performance, which was a total hit.

Some canny marketer in the SCO team labelled this concert ‘Bohemian Rhapsodies’, presumably in case any stray Freddie Mercury fans were in the vicinity. The link goes even further than nationalities, of course: Josef Suk was Dvořák’s son-in-law, as well as his student, and it was thanks to his instructions that, at the tender age of 18, Suk wrote his delectable Serenade for Strings. The soft focus of the string sound here gave the music a beautifully intimate hue, making the first movement sound warmly familiar rather than grandly symphonic, and the gracious dance of the second movement led into a third suffused with a gentle whisper. The finale combined mahogany richness with delicately placed inflections – Swensen, a violinist himself, knows what he’s doing in this sort of repertoire – with lashings of vibrato to complete the sound picture.

The Fiddler’s Child, Janáček’s pitch black tone poem based on an even darker folk tale, was as jagged and raw as Suk was smooth and warm. The cold edge to the string tone fitted perfectly the tale of the ghostly fiddler who calls his sickly child to be with him in death, and even leader Stephanie Gonley’s solo felt constricted. The whole thing was steeped in lore, but also strangely macabre, especially in the twisted folk dance that seemed to curdle rather than cheer. Indeed, a frigid unease seemed increasingly to grip the music, making it strangely suitable for the chilly Hallowe’en night outside.

Simon Thompson