How strange to have billed this as a concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Since only three of its members appeared, that’s like selling a barber shop quartet as the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Still, it helps keep the brand alive and this satisfying coupling of piano quartets by Mozart and Fauré, recorded in The Queen’s Hall on 24th February but available online from last night, is the first of several chamber events planned for these straitened times by the SCO’s section leaders and others.

Susan Tomes
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

The ‘other’ in this case was Susan Tomes, a chamber pianist whose pre-eminence endures long after her prolific career with Domus and the Florestan Trio. Now a freelance musician who has, like so many of her colleagues, barely performed a note in the past year, she returned to the fray with two calling cards from her early career.

Tomes grips the eye as well as the ear, for she has mastered the art of throwaway perfectionism in music that's in her blood. Relaxed and authoritative at the keyboard, the alchemistic Scot spun black printed dots into gold as what appeared to be an idle flick of the wrist or a casual finger-twiddle became a perfectly formed moment of virtuosity. The weighting of her left hand in the first movement of K478, the earlier of Mozart’s two essays in the form, was even more delicious than her elegant right-hand acrobatics. It’s only a short leap from this repertoire to the piano concertos – indeed, Mozart’s Allegro moderato finale is fully formed as a concertante movement with bright cadenza flourishes and thickly textured piano writing – and it found Tomes at her most commanding.

Maria Włoszczowska
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra
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However fine the pianist, in a quartet she is only as good as the sum of her colleagues and throughout the two works there were clues that they are not regular performing partners. The string players were all very proficient (and in the case of the distinguished young violinist Maria Włoszczowska considerably more than that) but sonically they did not always blend well. Indeed the lack of a collective intuition may explain the fact that the Mozart work, albeit with all repeats observed, exceeded the half-hour mark.

Fauré’s First Piano Quartet opens with a lyricism that belies the gloom of its C minor key, and Włoszczowska swept it along with engaging authority. For some reason the pianist’s Steinway sounded recessed here – or else the string players were more bullish – but eventually the ear adjusted. The experienced Tomes adopted a tempo for the second movement that was sedate but never plodding; some performances of this Scherzo run away with the jauntiness but she was all too aware of the pitfalls in music that crams a lot of piano notes into its six-minute duration (even though this performance was a full minute slower than her 36-year-old Domus recording).

In a transcendent performance the Adagio can bring tears to the eyes, and if it didn’t quite do so here the music’s combination of dignity and beauty nevertheless shone through and ushered in an exhilarating account of the finale. This was quite splendid: a collegiate experience that healed all the earlier abrasions in playing that came close to a homogeneous ideal.


This performance was reviewed from the SCO's video stream

***11