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Mozart, Schubert: Soloists, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Louis Langrée (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8.10.2009 (SRT)

Mozart: Overture, The Magic Flute

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished”

Mozart: Mass in C minor

Gillian Keith (sop)

Lisa Milne (sop)

Joshua Ellicott (tenor)

Brindley Sherratt (bass)

The SCO have a very exciting season ahead of them, building up to the debut of Robin Ticciati as their principal conductor in December. This season opener began, appropriately, with an overture. This Magic Flute had sonorous depth in its opening chords, helped by natural brass and timps and a clean, vibrato-less string sound which didn’t get in the way of the scampering fugue. In comparison with this the opening of the Great Mass sounded fairly underwhelming. The penitential austerity of the string sound was there but there was too little of the weight that Mozart built into his score. The lack of power was remedied in some respects as the work progressed, particularly in the opening chorus of the Credo where Langrée underlined (exaggerated?) the trumpets and drums, lending it a pleasing martial air, and by the final Hosanna the cobwebs had been blown off. It wasn’t enough to obscure the problems of the SCO Chorus, however: their Kyrie sounded pale and uncertain, inevitably weakening the power of the opening, and the tenors and basses were utterly swamped for the first half of the work, at least from my seat in the back of the Grand Circle. The showcase fugue on Cum Sancto Spirito was all in place and sounded really excellent, making me wonder if they spent so long on the difficult passages that they didn’t have enough focus on the overall breadth of the work. A shame, as they’re capable of really good things. They need to be rehearsed more thoroughly to show what they can do before their next engagement. Gillian Keith, standing in for an unwell Malin Christensson, was marvellous in her solos, achieving transcendent beauty with her Christe and managing the double-octave leap with seeming ease. Her aria on Et incarnatus est carried a compelling sense of line and her cadenza with the woodwinds was intimate and touching. Next to her Lisa Milne’s normally fulsome soprano sounded uncomfortable and mannered, her coloratura lacking the necessary agility. Her unconvincing facial gestures towards the audience didn’t help, though her contributions to the ensembles were well observed. The brief appearances of Joshua Ellicott and Brindley Sherratt were distinguished and colourful.

The pinnacle of the evening, however, was far and away the finest performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony that I’ve heard in Edinburgh. Langrée was fully in touch with the dark grandeur of the first movement but also, more impressively, with the way the Andante teeters between Elysian bliss and existential despair. The dark rumble of the opening led organically into that always strange dual woodwind call of the first subject. Against this dark backdrop the G major second subject glowed all the brighter through the cellos’ use of subtle vibrato, only to be snuffed out by the return of the minor. The development felt like a steadily intensifying descent into despair and those four tutti chords that end the movement felt like blows to the chest, not least because the last was cut off before it had a chance to expand. The transcendence of the Andante con moto was like moving from darkness to light, and perhaps the finest moment of the entire evening was the way the solo clarinet and oboe gently introduced the second theme between them before ebbing away into nothingness. By the final bars you couldn’t have made up your mind whether Schubert had a smile at the end or a resigned farewell. This was the SCO at their best, Langrée shaping each phrase with a view to the overall architecture of the work, and succeeding with cumulative power of devastating effect.

Simon Thompson

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