An unattributed quote on Christian Zacharias' website suggests a Taoist approach: "That’s what his art is all about – not imposing a view, but letting each piece grow at its own pace." Whether conducting, directing from or playing the piano, Zacharias exhibited throughout this Queen's Hall concert the lightness of touch afforded only by mastery.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou

This was nowhere more beautifully demonstrated than in the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No 85 in B-flat 'La Reine'. This lovely set of variations on the folk song "La gentille et jeune Lisette" was played with such delicacy that Alison Mitchell's flute descant seemed to float timelessly above. This movement also featured the first of the evening's many wonderful bassoon contributions from Peter Whelan.

Highlighting Zacharias' and the SCO's lightness of touch in no way suggests an absence of force. The explosive dynamics of the following Menuetto: Allegretto reminded us that behind elegance there is always muscle. This movement's most tender moment involved an imitative woodwind section initiated by Robin Williams' sensitive oboe playing. Conducting without baton, as I'd imagine a pianist to prefer, Zacharias' indication of a note's end was achieved with a simple touching of thumb against fingertips; not for him the grasping of empty air in a closed fist.

The first half's mature Haydn was balanced by young Mozart, his Piano Concerto No 9 in E-flat K271 'Jeunehomme'. The work dates from January 1777, when Mozart turned 21. Having noted Zacharias' preferred piano set-up on his website (in the "Haydn killed by cellphone" incident) I was pleased to see it reconstructed here: no piano lid obscuring sight lines; Zacharias with his back to the audience, the better to communicate with the orchestra, and no less polite than traditional conducting orientation. This layout's added advantage is that soloist and audience share the piano's left-right pitch sense. I felt this keenly in the cadenzas. Looking over Zacharias' right shoulder I noticed a violist beam with pleasure at the phrasing of the first movement's harmonically adventurous cadenza. This was the antithesis of "slave to the rhythm" and Zacharias' playing, full of light and breath, was joyously alive. The dark C minor of the central Andantino was haunting. Anthony Burton's fine programme note had schooled me to listen out for a touch of young Mozartian genius: the beautiful opening string theme turns out not to be the main theme but rather accompaniment to the following florid piano melody. Zacharias' playing seemed so intuitive that one might be forgiven for overlooking the considerable intellectual and artistic achievement involved in directing the orchestra, not only between solo passages, but also while playing, and all of this from memory. The closing Rondo brimmed with cheer, with the exception of a passage where maverick Mozart displayed further genius. A Menuetto: Cantabile in triple meter is slotted into the middle of this duple-meter frolic. Somehow it works magnificently. Both moods were excellently captured here and audience response at the final cadence was instant and warm. Touchingly, Zacharias indicated, through insistent acknowledgment of orchestral contribution, that he felt this to be very much a team effort.

Conversing with Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio 3's "In Tune" earlier in the week, Zacharias accounted for the programme's perhaps puzzling pairings. Ravel and Poulenc's adoration of Mozart explained the second half. Ravel's 1910 orchestration of his 1899 Pavane pour une infante défunte certainly helps the listener locate the lovely inner lines. One of the most haunting is the high bassoon phrase, beautifully played by Peter Whelan, which counterpoints an upper woodwind melody. The theme then migrates to the strings where balance and quality of sound were outstanding. Of course the hero of the piece is the solo horn, here played by Bostjan Lipsovek. The cheerfully explosive opening of Poulenc's 1948 Sinfonietta sets the tone for much of the piece. Commissioned by the BBC just after the end of World War II, its ebullience must have seemed an antidote to the preceding years' privations.

Zacharias gave the down beat while applause for the Ravel was still dying, as if to say, "let's get this romp going!" At four movements long, contrast of mood is essential; the gentle Andante Cantabile obliges, particularly the wistful woodwind lines, hinted at in the preceding Molto Vivace. The mercurial scoring of this work lends it the nature of a concerto for orchestra as much as a sinfonietta and the ability of the orchestra to turn on a sixpence was both impressive and energising. This was especially true in the Finale, whose opening theme sounded somewhat Mozartian. Audience response was extremely warm and Zacharias was called back for three more bows, which he was delighted to share with his SCO friends of many years.

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