Haydn: Symphony no. 94, 'Surprise'; Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no. 2; Stravinsky: Orpheus

Capuçon, Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Ticciati

Usher Hall, 15 March 2011 3 stars

capuconThe same composer and the same orchestra, under different direction, in a different venue, performing different symphonies in different rhetorical contexts: tonight's Haydn made for an interesting contrast with the other month's Cl@six outing.

Almost the same orchestra, anyway — without getting too Heraclitean, personnel shift subtly from outing to outing. More surprising, perhaps, is the difference that placing the Haydn first instead of last makes. It can be bold and rewarding manoeuvre, provided that the remainder of the programme complements the gesture. On this occasion, if not fending for itself entirely, Haydn's symphony seemed a bit lonely.

And just for once, at least in the first movement, Robin Ticciati could be accused of over-conducting, garnishing the flow with what you might call a polite operatic rubato; where Haydn steps out of the 6/8 metre and into 3/4, Ticciati went beyond a merely rhythmic lurch (albeit a stylish, Haydnesque lurch) to a lilting waltz, which, like the subsequent menuet, cast more than a nod towards the Viennese waltz of Johann Strauss. Still, the Andante was sumptuous, the Menuet (nods and all) enchanting, and the finale twinkling with syncopated merriment.

The Szymanowski was fresh in the memory, too, from a recent outing in the hands of Frank Peter Zimmerman and the RSNO. Odd that such a supposedly rare work should turn up twice in such a short space of time, but again an opportunity to reflect on similarities and differences. Similar was the excellence, though not the style, of the soloist — though in regard to the latter dimension, the difference is more a matter of salesmanship than of musical intellect, of which both have an abundance. Where Zimmerman was practically dancing at times, Renaud Capuçon's playing maintained a serene and detached elegance as the orchestra, swollen beyond any semblance of 'chamber' proportion, glowed with the surreal warmth of Szymanowski's almost mystical transformations of essentially simple folk material.

Certainly Stravinsky's Orpheus ought to have complemented the Haydn nicely, with the composer having adopted the so-called neoclassical style, some thirty years previously, with which he supplanted the early, vibrantly barbarous style epitomized by Le Sacre du Printemps. The legend of Orpheus, too, has inspired several sublime episodes in the history of music. With approaches as diverse as Monteverdi's or Offenbach's, Gluck's or Birtwistle's, one can imagine that there is plenty of room for further distinct perspectives on the message and meaning of the myth.

On the other hand, if one wanted to be unkind, one might say that Stravinsky had run out of cupboards to raid. At any rate, this Orpheus is so pallid that a craving for dancers to bring some sense of shape and direction is counterbalanced by the dread feeling that the dancers' feet would be glued to the stage by the torpid tranquillity of the score. Both Michael Tumelty, previewing this work in the Glasgow Herald, and Jonathan Cross, writing the programme note, speak of moments of great violence. I bow to their expertise, but I confess I perceived no such passion. Instead, what struck me was a sense not so much of a ballet score as a piece of media music, such as one might hear supporting a nature documentary. The kind of music, in other words, that solicitously remains in the background—which isn't what you want when the music is all there is.

That is not to say that Orpheus is without its beauties. If the work is lacking in animation, it is nevertheless endowed with touches of consummate skill, not least in the haunting opening and the equally piquant close, moments that afforded the musicians the chance — gratefully seized — to express their eloquence.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Renaud Capuçon


zimmermanRelated articles:

Concert Review: The SCO under Ticciati in Brahms, Mahler, and Henze
Concert Review: The RSNO in Szymanowski
Concert Review: The SCO's February Cl@six concert

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