Schubert: Sonata in D, D850; 'Great' C Major Symphony

Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Christian Zacharias (piano and conductor)

Usher Hall, 19 April 2010 5 stars

Christian Zacharias

Boing! Alongside its new season schedule, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra unveiled their new branding, which springs into action right away. In place of the leisurely old legend stating the name at full but modest length, the new logo's impatient, semiotic-laden initials look like an uncoiling spring. I opened my ticket wallet and there it was—boing!—in the middle of the word 'enjoy'!

And I did enjoy, I'm happy to say. This was one of those quirky programmes that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra mounts from time to time, this time featuring a sonata in the first half, and a symphony in the second. It is an unusual idea, and perhaps a risky one—but on this occasion, certainly, a success.

If there is a risk, it is that an element of the potential audience might feel short-changed by a concert in which the orchestra is only there for half the time. Maybe it is a measure of the impact of a resurgent RSNO that this evening's perfectly respectable turnout should seem thin by comparison.

And the asymmetry of the programme was surprisingly challenging, because the concept was by no means casual, off-hand, or improvisatory. Rather, it demanded careful, attentive listening and reflection—although not in any solemn or excessively cerebral sense. How could it be, with Schubert as the focus?

Schubert and Christian Zacharias, to be more accurate: one of the compelling aspects of the evening was the chance to make a comparison between Zacharias the pianist, and Zacharias the conductor. One might have thought this was simply a matter of pianist-to-conductor, but it was rather interesting to project back, during the symphony, and reflect on the contrast between his tremendously demonstrative, physical approach to conducting with his altogether more centred concentration at the keyboard.

The D850 sonata is a big work; not quite as expansive as the better-known D960, but sufficiently broad in its conception to sustain the listener's attention for the duration. Familiar as one might be with the piece from listening to recordings, the ideal concert hall environment affords a focus on gifts that one might take for granted of Schubert. There is always that sense of tremendous, almost guileless ease — less rhetorical than conversational, but here in the D850 there is a deep and persuasive coherence marshalling what turns out to be, actually, an argument in the accepted classical manner.

Zacharias generates a warm, opulent tone, matching the scale of the sonata with carefully built and finely-graded phrasing. If the price for this is that he is not as rhythmically taut as other interpreters might be, his is not a romanticized reading by any means—even though, in retrospect, the care and precision is clearly matched by a deep passion. Startlingly so, in passing swiftly—even precipitously—from the conclusion of the second movement to the scherzo. Again, in the episodes of the rondo finale, Schubert's remarkable freshness, the sense of 'where on earth did that come from?' both make sense and retain their wonder in Zacharias' hands.

Zacharias the conductor is altogether more flamboyant of gesture. Flamboyant isn't quite the right word, because it suggests a measure of self-awareness (think Leonard Bernstein, for instance). The relationship with the recital segment suggests a 'former player' parallel with the football coach who watches the action from the touchline, orchestrates it, kicking every ball—it is that kind of total immersion. Given the scale and relentlessness of Schubert's Great C major symphony, that in itself is some considerable athletic feat.

Although it is ceaselessly, almost wearingly cheerful, it is nonetheless a work of considerable weight. While its broad arcs and rich sonorities—especially those generated by his innovative use of trombones—point obviously towards Bruckner, it is noticeable in the way that he works out his melodic developments that there is a rather more interesting link to Mahler, underpinned by that fondue harmony which melts and flips the mood in an instant. To think that he was roughly the same age, at the time of composition, as Beethoven was at the time of his second symphony! In that regard, perhaps another aspect that Zacharias' focus drew out is more interesting again: there is an elusive sense in the development of the first movement of time being manipulated as a means of articulating contrast.

The SCO matched their conductor for ebullience and intensity, bringing off the difficult feat of giving a performance of considerable depth with sparkling clarity. At the end, Mr Zacharias seemed to want to shake the hand of every individual orchestra member in turn, and it was easy to understand why.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Christian Zacharias

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