An element of conflict inhabits the combination of an evening out and a requiem mass. This thought ran through my mind as I approached Edinburgh's Usher Hall, the sunny foreground of which was populated by happy-looking concert-goers greeting friends. I sensed eager anticipation in the auditorium and a Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) tweet suggests that I was not alone in this:“There's a real buzz in the hall tonight. The sun is shining outside and the hall is pretty full.” By the time James Gaffigan raised his baton, the hall was very full.

© Franca Pedrazzetti
© Franca Pedrazzetti

This final concert in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's 2010/11 season was a trio of late works by a master of conflict – Mozart. The ominous opening chords of the Overture to The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), K620 scarcely suggest that a comic opera might be about to unfold. However, the mood soon lifts upon the appearance of a much more chirpy theme, which is bounced around the various sections of the orchestra, maximising colour contrast. The playing was bristling with energy, fuelled by punchy, urgent articulation. As the two bassoons added their distinctive voice to the the contrapuntal fray, I found myself thinking, not for the first time, that the best hi-fi system is a live performance, in a sympathetic hall, by a top ensemble such as the SCO.

Continuing by memory, Gaffigan led a joyous performance of Symphony no. 41 in C major “Jupiter”, K551 – Mozart's last work in this form. It continues to astonish listeners and scholars that this perfect paradigm of compositional rigour was one of three symphonies composed within a few weeks in the summer of 1788. The level of concealed artistry in the fugal Finale, which combines five themes, is miraculous. However, irrepressible energy - not academic appreciation - is the result. This particular rendition, brimming with brio, served as a reminder of how music can keep us young – performer and (active) listener alike.

There are some works whose opening is so charged with gravitas that, within half-a-bar, all present are sure that an emotional journey of epic proportions has begun. Mozart's Requiem in D minor, K626 is just such a piece. In our secular age, where dwindling denominations have put Hell on the back burner, it is difficult to imagine that, at the time of composition, many would experience such a piece as ritual - praying above all that the journey between worlds, about to be undergone by the departed, would not feature “the pains of hell and the bottomless pit”. The operatic dread of this piece, and its vulnerable pleas for intercession, were thrillingly conveyed by orchestra, chorus and soloists: Susan Gritton (Soprano); Karen Cargill (Mezzo Soprano); Steve Davislim (Tenor) & David Wilson-Johnson (Baritone), who negotiated the wide, and often angular leaps of the Tuba Mirum with effortless grace and power.

One of the most striking features of this performance was the 48-strong SCO Chorus's memorisation of so much contrapuntal music and Latin language. I felt that it added to the attack, immediacy and projection of their contribution. Chorus member, Paul Honeyman, writes on the SCO website about their preparation: “Our young dynamic chorusmaster Greg Batsleer has worked very hard to make us think about what we are singing as well as giving us technical advice – hopefully you will hear a better performance as a result”. And again, “...and the decision that we will sing without scores this week adds to the excitement”. It certainly did and this was noted and appreciated by the audience. I have never experienced such a tumultuous reception for a chorus. It was very moving.

There could be no better send-off for the SCO as they embark on their summer tour of Scotland. I feel sure that all present look forward to their return and to what looks to be an exciting 2011/12 season.