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Mozart and R. Strauss: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Radovan Vlatković, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 14.1.2010 (SRT)

Symphony No. 35 “Haffner”
Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme


Few things can bring a smile to the face like an evening spent in the company of Sir Charles Mackerras. One of our finest living conductors, he is more capable than ever of conjuring the most magnificent sounds from an orchestra. What was immediately evident in last night’s performance was the warmth of affection between Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Their many years of working together produce an atmosphere of being so entirely comfortable with one another that the listener feels that they could achieve almost anything. Mackerras and the orchestra have recently finished recording a new disc for Linn (to be released in March) featuring Mozart’s Symphonies 29, 31, 32, 35 and 36, so it is in no way surprising that tonight’s performance of the Haffner Symphony should sparkle with such familiarity and fun. This was a performance of extroverted good humour, with some tremendous spotlighting from the brass in particular. Sir Charles is also capable of a few surprises: some of the violin figurations at the end of the finale actually made me laugh out loud! It bodes extremely well for the upcoming CD release.

One might perhaps not instantly associate the SCO with the music of Richard Strauss – his vast soundscapes lend themselves more readily to bigger forces and venues – but on the basis of this evening the SCO came close to sounding like something of a crack Strauss team. They played the youthful first horn concerto with all the scale and grandeur of a full scale symphony orchestra, riding the crest of the first movement’s exuberance and caressing the melancholy of the second. Radovan Vlatković’s horn playing was extraordinary, capturing the Alpine clarion call of the opening as ably as the dazzling closing roulades. Perhaps the finest moment was the soloist’s delectable interaction with the woodwinds during the finale. This piece really glowed golden, helped by the intimate acoustic of the Queen’s Hall.

Strauss’s music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is effectively the off-cuts of a double bill which would eventually become Ariadne auf Naxos. In it Strauss shows off his incredible skill as an orchestrator in tracing the fortunes of Molière’s Monsieur Jordain, allowing every section of the orchestra to shine in turn. The final number accompanies a dinner as each dish is laid out, and I couldn’t help but feel that Strauss himself was laying out his skills for us to sample in the same way. The entry of the tailors, for example, put me in mind of the Marschallin’s hairdresser, while the ungainly trombones brilliantly illustrate Jordain’s lack of skill as a fencer. Bradley Creswick made a special guest appearance as leader so as to take on the fiendish but delightful violin solo, but every section had its own moment in the limelight in a truly delightful suite, full of homages to the French Baroque. But the real wizard of the evening was Mackerras himself, now in his 85th year but sounding as young as ever, pointing every phrase and rhythm with the vigour and intelligence that have made him so well loved. The orchestra have recently been in the studio recording both Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Ariadne auf Naxos. The results, to be released on Chandos, are sure to be very exciting.

Simon Thompson

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