Size mattered in this programme, whether in the form of piano originals filled out to orchestral proportions, or Romantic reach reined in by Classical sensibility. The evening’s opening gesture was down to one man, Ian White, whose muted trombone ushered in Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercar from Bach’s 1747 Musical Offering. This zany and delicate treatment says all that can be said about the colour that orchestration can bring to a keyboard original. Bach’s theme bears distinctive features which help the ears chart its progress across the six-voice fugue: a dramatic drop of a diminished seventh; a descending chromatic scale. Both of these stand out against the opening ascending triad in such a way that the ears can follow more spinning plates than might be imagined. Add to this Webern’s outstanding ear for instrumental nuance and you have a great opener, which the SCO delivered with pointillistic panache.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve for Harmonia Mundi
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve for Harmonia Mundi

Baritone Matthias Goerne joined the SCO for a selection of Schubert Lieder, orchestrated by a variety of composers: Brahms, Webern, Reger and Matthias Spindler, described in Conrad Wilson’s scholarly programme note as a “busy modern arranger”. One could hear instantly in Spindler’s orchestration of “An Sylvia”, D.891, that busyness refers to professional success as opposed to a fondness for cramming a work with notes. On the contrary, this elegantly scored arrangement is perhaps something we might have expected from a one-time recording coordinator for Deutsche Grammophon. To my surprise, the orchestrations I enjoyed least were Brahms’, which, while often beautiful, were sufficiently heavy on occasion to present any vocalist and conductor combo with issues of balance.

Goerne, rightly celebrated for his Schubert gift, was on fantastic form. His head-voice could be breathy with suspense when required. When in full voice the tone was unbelievably rich. I soon became fascinated by Goerne’s performance manner. For example, he took the time to make eye contact with each area of the audience, including the often eclipsed gallery. It felt as though he were addressing visible individuals as opposed to an amorphous, unlit mass. Regarding body language he seemed, at certain tempi, not only to be dancing but to be fondly holding the hands of an invisible partner. The pièce de résistance of this eight-song set was Reger’s orchestration of “Erlkönig”, D.328. To my ears, the replacement of repeated piano key strokes with alternate bowing on strings lent an additional charge to the rising panic in Goethe’s tale of pillion passenger terror. This was a truly thrilling performance by Goerne and the SCO. The exuberant response was rewarded with what I felt to be the perfect choice, Reger’s orchestration of “An die Musik”, D.547. The vocal and orchestral sounds were lovely and Schubert’s affecting use of appoggiaturas in the accompaniment was touchingly underlined by the sense of line afforded by Reger’s sensitive orchestration.

David Gardner’s intriguing programme note on Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony describes the composer’s intention to express the simultaneous existence of tragedy and joy. This was the first time I’d experienced a live performance of this movement, which is scored for divided strings and harp, and I was very taken with the chamber (as opposed to symphony) orchestra proportions. The texture was significantly lighter than many more treacly recordings I have heard. The SCO’s phrasing was so crystalline that it seemed possible to follow the progress of every line – to understand the composition, as it were. Moreover, Robin Ticciati’s pacing of the movement revealed its shape with what was, for me, a hitherto unknown clarity. The shafts of sunlight in this otherwise intense movement were very delicately handled, in the manner hinted at in Gardner’s programme note – sunlight to inform rather than transform. Helen Sharp was very impressive in the exposed and pivotal harp part.

Schubert’s sunny Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, D.485 (1816) closed this nicely conceived programme. Lightly scored, with only one flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns, this graceful work is that of a nineteen-year-old. The SCO captured its optimism, which contrasts greatly to mature Schubert, if one can use such a word for a composer who died shy of his 32nd birthday. This sunniness was particularly evident in the outer movements whose graceful vigour put me in mind of Mozart. Alison Mitchell, the sole flautist, contributed wonderfully to this piece, and across the programme as a whole. Ticciati and the orchestra were true to the graceful spirit of this symphony, particularly in the playful phrase extensions in the third and fourth movements and in the flexible tempo of the Menuetto’s contrasting Trio section. The SCO really seem to enjoy their work and this symphony was a fine example. The near-capacity crowd signalled that they felt likewise.

****1