A significantly smaller than usual audience was present for the SCO’s ‘Symphonic Opera’ concert, the finale of its St Andrews season. In the days leading up to thee concert, there was some disgruntlement from people about the programme – “Another Haydn symphony” was a common complaint, the Orchestra having put on several in St Andrews recently. Despite this, the singing, playing and conducting were superb, and any notions of being tired of the repertoire were quickly extinguished.

Jean-Christophe Spinosi © Serge Derossi / Naïve
Jean-Christophe Spinosi
© Serge Derossi / Naïve

The concert opened with operatic works by Mozart. The Overture to Cosi Fan Tutte was given a sparkling account, with fine contrast between the grand chords of the opening and the lyrical sections which follow. The ensuing arias, from Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte, were sung by mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupić and showed contrasting sentiments. In the first, Pokupić displayed wonderful control to produce a very moving performance. Going off stage between arias, she then stormed dramatically back to begin the tragic recitative. The contrast was striking, and the sudden change very impressive. Despite the anguish expressed by the soloist, the gentle woodwind phrasing suggested very effectively that all might not be as gloomy as predicted by the grief-stricken Dorabella. The balance between emotions was very well managed by the effervescent conducting of Spinosi.

Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ symphony closed the first half. This, along with the Haydn symphony later, formed slightly strange additions to the concert. Any adherence to the ‘Symphonic Opera’ theme was certainly left unexplained. This was certainly not a point of complaint at the interval, however: the symphony was given a very polished performance. The fourth movement in particular, played at an ambitious tempo, was full of joy and life. The bassoon playing, often doubling very quick passages in the cello section, was especially impressive, and the reaction to the Symphony was very positive.

Operatic works by Rossini followed the interval, beginning with the overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia. This was again taken at a very quick tempo by Spinosi, who at several points took off from the rostrum with excitement. This passion was taken up brilliantly by the Orchestra, which performed magnificently. The woodwind solos were nothing short of superb – wonderful tone and perfect phrasing. The unity of the SCO is always impressive, and this was shown strongly in the faster passages of the Rossini. One slight peculiarity was the percussion section – the Overture is scored for timpani and bass drum, but the bass drum player here doubled the part with a cymbal attachment. This might have been quite effective if given an extra player to use conventional cymbals, but using a small cymbal attachment meant that one or two notes were not quite balanced perfectly, simply due to the practical difficulty of playing and damping both at once. This was only really a passing observation, however, and the piece as a whole was very enjoyable.

Two more contrasting arias followed, one from L’Italiana in Algieri and one from Seville. The first, Cruda sorte, shows a shift from despair to devious cunning. Pokupić and Spinosi’s interaction, particularly towards the end, was superb, drawing chuckles from the audience. She would glare angrily at the conductor, gesture with disdain at the orchestra, and then suddenly smile enticingly at Spinosi, highlighting the fluctuating emotions of the piece. The music was very convincing; playful, yet conniving, and very enjoyable.

Una voce poco fa was given a similarly playful rendition, while Pokupić all the while showed off excellent command of range and control. It was easy to forget the presence of the Orchestra behind her, but it played just about perfectly, reinforcing her every sentiment. At the joyful end of the piece, she tore Spinosi’s baton from him to close the very last chord with some gusto. It was marvellous to see such interaction between soloist and conductor, and by extension, orchestra. The SCO really do play chamber music wonderfully – each player communicating silently with the others, interacting seamlessly to create a beautiful sound.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 82, ‘The Bear’ closed the concert. The performance was highly polished, as expected. The third movement’s trio, far more substantial than might normally be expected, was full of charm, and never threatened to grow tiresome under Spinosi’s excellent direction. The fourth movement, with its ‘dancing bear’ theme, was taken at breakneck speed, like many other parts of the concert. This was no struggle for the Orchestra, which packed every phrase with energy. The underlying bagpipe imitations, amusingly shifting through different keys in the development, are a simple touch but were played with an excellent force – accented grace notes and drone-like tone, but not detracting from the bear theme. This, like so much of the concert, was fun music. After the closing chords, Spinosi managed to convince the whole audience that another was to come, even spinning around on the rostrum and feigning another downbeat with a roguish grin. His conducting throughout had been superb, and he inspired wonderfully energetic playing with his leaps and even the occasional jump off the rostrum.

This was another wonderful concert from an Orchestra which is playing very well indeed. The only debateable point might be the relevance of the symphonies to the programme, though nobody would complain about their inclusion. Those who shunned this concert for fear of Mozart/Haydn excess missed out on a great evening, and the Orchestra’s next season in St Andrews will be eagerly anticipated. Perhaps, though, the Orchestra are moving towards more guaranteed ticket-sellers: next year sees Beethoven 5 and 6, which will certainly draw in full audiences.