When the season's programme was first announced last year, there was much excitement at the alpha and omega of Ticciati's Don Giovanni for the opening concert, and Mackerras's valedictory programme featuring the Requiem for the closing. A near-full house suggests that despite the inevitable cloud of regret attending the latter's passing, life goes on.
The programme, after all, is one to savour: The Magic Flute Overture is an adroit choice to complement the Requiem, since both scores call for trombones; several works might slip easily between the two, but the 41st symphony, exalted in the orchestral pantheon (if you'll forgive the purple prose), rounds out the programme superbly.
Mozart uses trombones to evoke, broadly, the eldritch—they are there in Don Giovanni, and they are there in The Magic Flute. Strangely, in both, and in the Requiem, it seems that what they actually evoke, above anything else, is tradition. During the Overture, I was pondering the question, when did sackbuts become trombones? It turns out that they didn’t—sackbut is the French/English term for the same instrument as the Italian trombone and the German posaune.
The worry prompting the thought is the SCO's welcome practice of using natural trumpets and horns in the classical repertoire, while the trombones—typically guest instruments—appear to be modern. Since the trombone has changed less, probably, than any other instrument save the violin since the renaissance, one might ask what the difference might be between a period instrument and a modern one. The answer is in the bore, and a corresponding weight of sound that in a way undoes the good intention of using natural trumpets and horns, with their agreeable softness of timbre and authenticity of intonation. It is a small worry, admittedly; nevertheless, the sonority of the modern instruments tended to overbalance the mix in an otherwise pleasant and warm interpretation.
James Gaffigan, who stepped in to take on the conducting duties for this performance, is a highly regarded young American who was working as Mackerras's assistant during Glyndebourne's production of Cosi Fan Tutte last year. He delivered a thoughtful and well-prepared reading of the so-called 'Jupiter' symphony. The lustrous, polished string sound attested to a good rapport with his musicians; there was an unusual, striking softness to his pianos.
One might not necessarily agree, though, with some of the outcomes. In the first movement, he interpolated a number of allargandos at critical points, which, although not overweeningly grandiose, were nevertheless out of style, while some of the phrasing had perhaps spent too much time in the gymnasium. The second movement was the most successful, evincing a deliciously rich softness; the finale—let's be frank—was disappointing, the huge, majestic splendour somehow impeded by an over-attention to nuance. Still, there was one remarkable moment, when Mr Gaffigan (conducting without a score) stepped off the podium and into the orchestra. That's something I haven't seen before.
As with the RSNO's Beethoven last week (see below), the soloists, for the Requiem, were sited (or seated) just in front of the chorus, rather than next to the conductor. Some listeners disapprove of this arrangement, but to my mind it ameliorates one of the jarring features of the Viennese mass, which is that very intrusion of the celebrity of the soloist into the communal observances, however stylized they may be.
After the sheer splendid weight of the RSNO chorus in the Beethoven, the SCO chorus, smaller in number, proved equal in effectiveness, while Mr Gaffigan brought a certain dramatic flair to his management of proceedings. While one might want to quibble about the details, his secure sense of shape and pacing, and the overall sound he drew from the ensemble, spoke well of his future, and I would not be in the least surprised to see him return in seasons to come; that is a spirit of life going on that I’m sure that the late maestro would surely endorse.
Photo: James Gaffigan
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum