Three musical gifts to delight the ear formed the unifying thread in this concert given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Douglas Boyd. And who wouldn’t like the thought of receiving such a very special present? Gift Number One: written as a birthday token for his sister Fanny, Mendelssohn’s overture The Fair Melusina was the last of his seven such freestanding works. There was a strongly period feel to Boyd’s interpretation with minimal vibrato, natural trumpets, valveless horns and hard-sticked timpani (also deployed later in the Mozart) which created an open and transparent sound. Conversely, not a great deal of Romantic yearning and sensuousness was apparent in the string lines, features which caused Schumann to comment that the music depicts “pearls, fish with golden scales and magic deep-sea castles”.

Steven Osborne
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Gift Number Two: written towards the end of his life, when he was already suffering from a terminal neurological condition, Ravel had originally intended to be the soloist in his Piano Concerto in G major. Once he was unable to overlook his own failing health, he gifted the premiere to his friend Marguerite Long. It has long been a favourite of the SCO’s soloist Steven Osborne, who in this performance frequently stressed the softer and more classically elegant sides to the music coupled with a fastidious awareness of colour, tone and touch. He took his time too over the central Adagio assai movement, slowly easing into the melody in the right hand after gently rocking rhythms from the left, the limpid quality of his playing giving the long breaths of Ravel’s singing lines a seamless and quite serene quality. His stylishness here was beautifully offset by touches of piquancy from the SCO’s clarinet and flute, and later he dovetailed elegantly in his extended duet with the cor anglais of Imogen Davies. There was a playful sparkle to the concluding Presto, with all the brilliance and effervescence in the score captured most effectively by both soloist and conductor. 

Douglas Boyd conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Gift Number Three: while on tour in Paris in 1778, Mozart writes his latest symphony for the pre-eminent concert-giving body Concert Spirituel and, in a deliberate attempt to court local opinion, includes a premier coup d’archet. What on earth’s that, I hear you say. “The first strike of the bow” refers to a forceful bowing technique at the very start, here a unison forte in D major that releases its tension in the excitably ascending scale that follows. No fewer than 57 players took part in the premiere of the Paris, including a pair of clarinets not heard up to this point in any of Mozart’s other symphonies. The SCO sported a complement of just 35: this was fine enough to convey the pulsating energy and festive edge present in the outer movements, the period approach allowing a good deal of inner detail to come through. 

Yet even so not everything worked satisfactorily. In the opening Allegro assai Mozart goes from a whisper to a roar, creating what became known as the “Mannheim crescendo”. Not much whisper here, nor a mighty roar either. My chief quibble, however, was with Boyd’s view of the Andante. It was moved along quite briskly, his sweeping arms and imploring gestures often creating a restless effect. This is a movement in which Mozart gives his audience a big hug, but the brittleness of sharp-edged phrasing from the woodwind and staccato-emphasising lower strings took the shine off what should have been a warm, enveloping embrace. On paper Mozart might look simple enough; in performance his simplicity often defies realisation.

 

This performance was reviewed from the SCO's video stream 

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