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Mozart, Janáček, Schubert: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, André de Ridder (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 3.12.2009 (SRT)

Symphony in D K320 “Posthorn”

Janáček (arr. David Matthews): On an Overgrown Path

Schubert: Symphony No. 4 “Tragic”

This was almost an “outdoor” programme: Mozart’s Symphony K 320 originates from his “Posthorn” Serenade which was probably written as an outdoor entertainment for Salzburg society, while Janáček’s first set of On an Overgrown Path is unavoidably suggestive of the Czech homeland that the composer loved so dearly. Serious musicianship was always going to be the chief concern, however, with someone like André de Ridder on the podium.

I love hearing what de Ridder can do with an orchestra. His style of conducting is unobtrusive but purposeful and he can turn a phrase in the most telling manner. The opening movement of Mozart’s “Posthorn” symphony, for example, is all exuberance and pomp but even in the midst of the majesty de Ridder tempered the blustering phrases in upon themselves so as to lend them a whole new layer of subtlety. The unexpectedly intense D minor slow movement moved with understated passion, while the extrovert finale was lightened with a genial chuckle from the oboes and bassoons in the second subject. Likewise, the first movement of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony coursed along with energy, especially the ostinato-like passage towards the end of the exposition. The surge into the major felt like a sprung surprise at the end of the first movement but carried an air of unarguable inevitability in the finale. He conjured gorgeous string tone for the main theme of the A flat slow movement and the crazy Minuet seemed always to teeter on the brink of chaos, exactly as it should in the hands of a great conductor.

The most interesting work this evening, however, was David Matthews’ arrangement of the first set of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. Like all of Janáček’s greatest music this set of ten pieces, originally a set of piano miniatures, is an intensely personal reflection on his own life, not least the traumatic death of his daughter Olga at the age of 21. Matthews’ arrangement was commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival and premiered there by the SCO in August 2008, and it is revelatory in many ways. Matthews clearly knows and loves his Janáček and he has done a great job of evoking the mature composer’s late style. In particular he has captured that most Janáčekian skill of contrast and it is that which confronts the listener in the very opening movement, Our evenings, where the warm string tone juts up against jarring xylophone and brass. He uses the trombones and trumpets to evoke a fittingly solemn church atmosphere in The Madonna of Frýdek and the unrelentingly insistent xylophone leavens the otherwise beautiful textures of Goodnight. The gentle folksiness of Come with us! is captured beautifully before giving way to the bleak orchestral landscapes of the final movements. Matthews saves his finest stroke for last, however, using a bassoon with a piccolo two octaves above to evoke the owl, a symbol of ill omen in Czech folk literature. Janáček’s idea of alternating this with a warmer, more hopeful motif only serves to underline the tragedy when the owl gets the final word. The orchestra are fully in sympathy with all of Matthews’ choices and they played beautifully, with too many excellent solo contributions to mention here. De Ridder crafted each phrase with care and affection and was utterly convincing at every turn. It is a tribute to Matthews that it never even crossed my mind that I was listening to anything other than pure Janáček.

Simon Thompson


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