Song of the Earth

Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO)

Haydn, Symphony No 70 in D; Mahler,

‘Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)’

City Halls, Glasgow,

January 30th 2015

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Big public art needs elaborate sponsorship these days, which explains how in the programme for this concert at the City Halls the page facing the one giving details of what was to come had a brasserie promo with a mighty lamb shank on a bed of couscous. Along with promotion we can also expect a bit of hype; so as well as details of the music and artists, we were offered a headline that promised us:’SORROW BEAUTY FOREVER’. Some of that we did get in what followed; maybe not

in the proportion or degree intended, but enough to get us out the door happy with what had taken place and what we had heard. Haydn’s 70th Symphony, is a bit ‘odd’ – as the young man sitting next to me observed, encountering it for the first time. For the SCO, Haydn is meat and drink – here more bonne bouche than lamb shank – and the orchestra and conductor Robin Ticciati managed everything with aplomb, and with a special charge of energy too. I had been struck with the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed look of everybody at the start, before I noticed the film cameras upstairs and down. The musicians it seemed were out to impress, and they did: handling the ‘oddities’, like the switching from D Major to D Minor and the development of a full-on fugue in the finale, with panache.

There are plenty shifts in the Haydn to keep everyone on their toes: the minor-major contrast can occur within a movement as well as between the movements themselves, and the variations in tempi and dynamic present distinct challenges. The opening ‘Vivace con brio’ was as lively and spirited as declared on the tin, the ‘Andante’ – with the bass melodic line giving depth of tone – had sweet and good edges too, like a skater on clear ice. Depth and range and elegance were also there in the ‘Menuet’, so it had dignity as well as diversion. The final movement began so quietly my neighbour said he had missed Ticciati’s upbeat, but the drive and energy picked up, and this strange mix of titillation and attack worked through to the close.

‘Pretty’ was the judgement of a young student I quizzed about it in the queue to the interval bar, and she was right; but it had its own insistent appeal and challenges too. Back in for the Mahler, and for me considerable expectation. In a welcoming programme note, Karen Cargill, an Associate Artist with the SCO, who was to sing as mezzo-soprano in Das Lied von der Erde, pointed back nearly 70 years to the first Edinburgh Festival performance of the piece, featuring Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. Well, you can’t set the bar higher than that – even though Karen Cargill had sung the same work with the SCO two years previously, and would have gained confidence as a result.

I think at that performance the SCO had also used the arrangement of the work by Glen Cortese, so the conductor and orchestra had form for that too. To my ear, it didn’t start especially well. Whether it was the arrangement or direction things went a bit helter skelter. More significantly, the tenor Simon O’Neill was himself swallowed in the early exchanges in the drinking song – and his first sharp climb to ‘klingen’ (where the line promises sorrow with laughter resounding in our soul) came up short and harsh. My maybe too severe note mentioned a ‘copper pipe effect’, but there were moments in this first section where bits jarred when they should have blended, and I was wincing more than once. Things went more happily in the reflection on youth, ‘Von der Jugend’, and the fifth section with its carousing in spring. The singer was always more comfortable in the lower registers, and he did enter the particular mood of the songs when his technique allowed. Still., allowing for the fact that Mahler brings both voice and instruments right to the edge, the quality of O’Neill’s range and tone was disappointing in an artist of his reputation.

Karen Cargill’s contribution was marked by some uncertainty at the start too, before she and the SCO moved into the lyrical dimensions – for instance the gentle, legato elements in ‘Von der Schönheit’. If the dynamic rose, she went with it, and was never in consequence washed away. ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, however ‘chamber’-like the orchestration, and even with special arrangement, does create difficulties of adjustment for the singers and players; however, the solo or paired instrumentation (contrapuntal and at times in free cadenza style) was striking, with oboe, flute, individual strings and percussion and so on weaving in beautifully.

As she relaxed, Karen Cargill developed a lovely vocal control, and in ‘Der Abschied’ she entered the song fully, carrying us through to the heartbreaking conclusion with absolute engagement. The orchestra’s playing and direction too was subtle and responsive, within the full panoply of sound and in the pianissimo. Robin Ticciati, held us forever in the moment after the last note fell; but he can not really be criticised for that, if that was what he actually felt. I enjoyed it. I love the piece  hard not to – and though I got not everything here (the ghosts of Ferrier and Walter, once invoked, are not that easy to ignore) there was certainly more than enough to be going on with.

Reviewer : by Mr Scales

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