Under normal circumstances, three Beethoven symphonies in one programme would be a hefty meal to swallow. However, when your master chef is Andrew Manze, such a menu becomes a lot more palatable.

Andrew Manze © Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

This is the second instalment of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s anniversary Beethoven cycle, and it’s wonderful to jump straight in with No. 2. When it comes as the first thing on the programme, the freshness, energy and sheer excitement of this masterpiece, still underrated in its company, really leaps off the page and, in a performance as fizzy as this one, it only confirms my guilty admission that I’d take it over the Eroica almost any time. The introduction was assertive without dominating, but the orchestra kept an explosive element up its sleeve for the second subject, while the first theme was both rapid and excitingly on-the-note. The whole first movement contained a brilliantly exciting sense of build, culminating in a red hot coda, setting up a soft, cool contrast in the subsequent Larghetto slow movement, in which Manze massaged some gorgeous tone from the strings with singing violins and soft-hued support cushioned from the cellos and basses. We got a bouncy Scherzo, albeit with an odd hiatus moving in and out of the Trio, and an agile finale where the strings weren’t afraid to play genuinely quietly in the service of the drama.

The orchestra played with natural brass and timpani, with modern strings playing with less vibrato. So far, so conventional: the SCO are world leaders in that mixed mode of performance. However, much more unusually, Manze had the double basses elevated in the middle of the orchestra’s back row, which made a much bigger difference than I had any right to expect. You could really hear their brooding presence in the murky introduction to the Fourth Symphony, and they seethed audibly beneath the surging energy of the Fifth’s finale, as well as in the more obvious moments of that symphony’s Scherzo. Manze took the famous first movement at a speed that wasn’t particularly fast, but the phrasing was clipped and effective and, if it took a while to ignite, then the coda was incendiary when it came. Barring an obvious wind mishap in the middle of the slow movement, the symphony was intensely focused, the only one where Manze observed the exposition repeats, and the trombones had a massive impact in the finale, blazing through the texture with dark grandeur.

If the Fourth sounded more conventional, then it still had lovely moments, including a gently swinging slow movement with some lovely wind solos, and a Scherzo whose Trio had a pleasing sense of legato. The finale sounded utterly ridiculous, but that’s because Manze fastidiously followed Beethoven’s directions with meticulous accuracy. It helped that he was waving his baton at a crack team who can play this music as well as anyone.


****1