SCO’s exploration of Mahler and Berg as complementary Viennese composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Berg: Kolja Blacher (violin), Roman Rabinovich (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Joseph Swensen (conductor). Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 25.11.2021. (SRT)

Joseph Swenson (c) Ugo Ponte


Mahler (arr. Britten)What the Wild Flower Tell Me

BergChamber Concerto

During a lighter moment in an otherwise rather heavy pre-concert chat from the podium, more of which below, Joseph Swensen mentioned that it has been 36 years since he first conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In fact, he was the first of their principal conductors that I knew, back when I started hearing them during my university days (about 23 years ago, since you ask), so I feel I have history with him. That, combined with the fact that he is a genuinely interesting musician, always makes me look forward to his visits to the SCO, and he did not disappoint tonight.

For one thing, it was a neat choice of programme. It wasn’t just Mahler and Berg: it was Mahler and Berg as complementary Viennese composers in the first decades of the twentieth century. Swensen pointed out that only twenty years separated the two latest items on the programme, Mahler’s Third Symphony and Berg’s Chamber Concerto; so while they may be cut from completely different musical cloths, they are not from entirely unalike ecosystems. Something big must have happened to bourgeois Viennese society in those intervening twenty years: the First World War, perhaps?

There are not many pieces by Mahler that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra can play: as far as I know, the only complete symphony they have ever played is the Fourth, for obvious reasons linked to scale and size. However, both Blumine and Britten’s chamber arrangement of What the Wild Flowers Tell Me sounded great, and I am sure it wasn’t just the novelty factor. Both pieces sounded sweet and (ironically?) innocent, with shimmering strings, a positively operatic trumpet solo in Blumine, and songful woodwinds in whose mouth butter would never even presume to melt. Importantly, both movements stayed on just the right side of schmaltz, something that you can by no means take for granted in music like this.

You could extend the novelty idea further, if you wanted to, because the SCO rarely gets the chance to perform ‘Second Viennese School’ music. Have their well-heeled Edinburgh patrons made their views on such mischief clear, I wonder? A pity, because this performance of Berg’s Chamber Concerto was a stonker. Swensen’s view of the piece is predominantly dark and brooding: he tended to play down the lyricism and quasi-Brahmsian sentimentality which is there if you care to look. However, while the piece is never an easy listen, it sounded great here.

Soloists Kolja Blacher and Roman Rabinovich were terrific, inhabiting the ambiguity inherent in the work’s playful toying with the concerto form. Blacher’s violin surged with emotional vibrato, but could whirl into astringent serialist argument at the drop of a hat. Rabinovich, meanwhile, trod expertly the music’s careful line between serious atonalism and ragtime jazz. It is often hard to tell how much soloists communicate with one another when they have to keep their nose buried in such tricksy scores as this one, but I never detected anything other than symbiosis between these two.

The real stars, however, were the thirteen wind soloists that made up the ‘orchestra’. A community of individuals, each ploughed their own distinct musical furrow while contributing unmissably to the overall whole, be it the rippling clarinets, the harrumphing contrabassoon, the glowing horns or the hyperactive trombone. One of the pleasures and pains of Berg’s score is that the ear is constantly being pulled in umpteen directions at once so that the brain – well, mine at any rate – often struggles to know where to focus. It is one of the things that can make the concerto an exhausting listen at times, but here it was primarily a pleasure, because each musical line wasn’t just individualistic but rich, opulent and honeyed. It was the most impressive thing I have heard from the orchestra in a while; a powerful distillation of what makes these players so great.

Two months into the SCO’s first post-lockdown season of concerts, I have grown rather fond of their format: no interval, tight programmes, home by 9pm. I am not so sure about the pre-concert introductions, though. It all depends on who does them, of course, but I find that the person with the microphone can sometimes enjoy the novelty of their own voice a little too much. Tonight, for example, Swensen’s portentous introduction got carried away with its own weightiness, describing the Chamber Concerto as ‘terrifying’ and ‘unknowable, the way madness is unknowable.’ Come off it, Joe! It’s also about love, passion and friendship! These chats don’t so much enlighten as get in the way. After Christmas, when the programmes lengthen and the interval returns, it is surely time to ditch them.

Simon Thompson

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