Richard Egarr is a regular and much-anticipated guest conductor with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He was their associate artist until 2017, and there is a spark of wizardry when he conducts them. Their concerts together over the years have let them build up a wonderful rapport which, combined with Egarr’s buckets of experience in the world of “Historically Informed Performance”, leads to a special kind of magic in their performances, and tonight was no exception. It helped that he also had a magical singer on the podium.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

I can’t think of many other conductors, for example, who could put together their own specially curated, out-of-chronological-order selection from Purcell’s Fairy Queen and make it sound so inviting, so natural and so coherent. “Don’t worry if you can’t follow it in the programme,” he merrily warned us: “you’ll know when it’s finished!” Indeed! Purcell’s semi-opera can seem a bit unwieldy or intimidating when considered at its full length, but this Cook’s tour of highlights gave a window into the work that left you hungry for more rather than groaning with satiety. The dances and airs had all the bounce of a fresh spring day, with brilliantly transparent string playing and bright, ceremonial trumpets to finish off on the top. Solo parts were well taken, especially a lovely violin obbligato from leader Benjamin Marquis Gilmore, and the whole suite culminated in a rhythmic chaconne that built up a pleasing head of steam.

And so to that magical soprano. Carolyn Sampson, appearing with the SCO for the second time this season, was on her most silvery tone for the sung numbers, conjuring up some lovely coloratura in “Hark! The Echoing Air” yet sounding convincingly grief-stricken in the plaint “O let me weep”. Her experience on the operatic stage also paid dividends in the selections from Semele, where her actor’s skill combined beautifully with her musicality to provide a hypnotically beautiful “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me”; and she had the audience eating out of her hand in a dazzling “Myself I shall adore”, complete with props and a sparkly dress to bring the character to life. It’s not often you see a soprano finishing her da capo while trying to catch a glimpse of her posterior in a hand mirror!

The SCO's instrumental Handel was just as fine. The Concerto grosso in B flat major Op.3 no. 1 bustled along with plenty of individuality and heaps of flair in its outer movements, with a beautifully seductive slow movement characterised by flowing winds. There then followed a storming account of the Royal Fireworks Music that veritably raised the roof of the Queen’s Hall. Not only was the playing explosive, with busy woodwinds and glowing brass (including some superb modern horns), but it also featured countless (typically Egarrian) theatrical touches, such as elongated drum rolls, added suspensions and extended harmonies, all backed up by orchestral playing that was totally sold on the concept. This was a performance that positively exploded into the air; not unlike the fireworks, I suppose!

*****