This was a programme of overtures and entr'actes, of words and music and of story – present and absent. David Gardener, who supplied fine programme notes for all three works, declined to detail the story of Wilhelmina von Chézy's 1823 drama Rosamunde; the critically panned play closed after two nights and Schubert's music has long outlived it. That the music was unearthed by Sir George Groves and Sir Arthur Sullivan may be more interesting than the plot itself. The SCO's opening Overture was bold and brassy, fired by explosive timpani strikes. Soon Robin Williams' oboe began the first of many fine woodwind moments. The symphonic Entr'acte I opened in bold, minor key territory before yielding to a tender second theme featuring some lovely chromatic oboe work.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Muscle was later supplied by trumpets, trombones and horns. Strikingly high and sustained horn playing informed the introduction to Entr'acte II before a pizzicato, walking bass line turned the mood. Tremolando strings, already featured in Entr'acte I, then intensified the atmosphere. Such rapidly changing musical landscape requires fine control of dynamic and conductor, John Storgårds, was 'on the case' with an urgency which, when viewed from the rear, as is always the conducting case, might be mistaken for sternness. One very interesting moment of technique caught my eye: conducting the brass in some very precise rhythms, he held his hands high, matching their raised position, and described very small movements, the more tightly to control the timing. The elegant melody of Entr'acte III is so familiar that the clarity of sound afforded by live performance prompted me to notice the interesting bass line. The searching harmonies at the tune's midpoint were played with touching delicacy. During the applause, Storgårds acknowledged the contribution of the fine woodwind section.

Given that Schoenberg is often regarded as much as a historical figure as a musician, as the man who sought an intellectual solution to western harmony's store of surprises being exhausted, I was tickled to read in the programme notes, his later brother-in-law Alexander von Zemlinsky's remark that Schoenberg, "maltreated his cello with more fire than accuracy!" Zemlinsky's 1896 Waldgrspräch for soprano, horns, harp and strings sets Eichendorff's tale in which an ill-fated young man, chivalrously offering to guide a "fair bride" out of the forest, discovers her to be the witch Lorelei. Setting aside the misogyny inherent in all tales of witchcraft, I suspended disbelief by surrendering to the poetry and the music. Soprano Katherine Broderick's journey from opening to gripping octave leap was very short – eight syllables; she was describing the cold at the end of the first line. A atmosphere of apprehension had already been set by tremolando strings and alarming horn. Like the Schubert, this work, in its four short stanzas, changes mood rapidly and Broderick steered deftly through the varied expressive terrain. Dynamics and tone were impressively controlled.

Clearly, Zemlinsky hadn't given up on harmonic surprise and the orchestra were alive to every colourful turn. Significant moments for solo violin, viola, horn and harp were acknowledged. I particularly enjoyed the harp's tumbling depiction of how Lorelei's castle "gazes down into the Rhine".

Story was very much present in Beethoven's 1809/10 Overture and Incidental Music to Egmont in the form of narrator David Hayman. A prolific actor/director, often cast as a hard man, Hayman declaimed in his own accent and using a microphone. The latter detail initially puzzled me because I hadn't reckoned on him competing with the orchestra in later moments. He seemed fascinated by the phenomenon of close-up conducting but I soon realised that this was not born of any sort of anxiety as he later seemed to be following musical cues and feeling story and sound world to be one and the same. Broderick remained in fine voice in the work's two contrasting lieder: “Die Trommel gerühret” (Roll the drum) evinced innocent military optimism while “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” (To Be Blissful and Tearful) hinted at the double-edged sword that is love. The final line, delivered joyously by Broderick, declares that "only a heart in love can be truly happy" but, alert to Egmont's imminent demise, we become painfully aware that only a heart in love can be truly broken and, sure enough, poison is taken.

The SCO strings sounded wonderfully rich during the work's bolder and dramatic moments. The darkness achieved in the opening was contrasted by ebullient light in later, more defiantly optimistic passages. Again, some fine, tender woodwind playing featured, particularly Alison Mitchell's flute. Peter Frank's fanfare trumpet and Matthew Hardy's rousing timpani and suspense-filled side-drum work were also warmly applauded. Both these players also contributed to some fine mood capturing in Entr'acte III where their quietness suggested pre-conflict military alertness.

***11