Scottish Chamber Orchestra

22 Jan 2009 in Highland, Music

Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 21 January 2009

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (photo - Marie-Reine Mattera)

IN CELEBRATION of the bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented an evening of music devoted to the composer and his contemporary, Robert Schumann.

It is always interesting how one artist informs or inspires another and this was very much a dynamic of the programme, not only in the choice of works but in the context of Mendelssohn’s creative circle during the early Romantic period and in the relationship between soloist and orchestra in performance.

Historian Dr Fiona Elliot gave an interesting insight into Mendelssohn’s milieu in a pre-concert talk which centred on the world of ideas that surrounded the young composer. Dr Elliot discussed the influence of art, literature and philosophy on his music using a series of images of the day – not just as illustration but as a series of ideological touchstones. This kind of cross-disciplinary approach, very much in tune with the salon culture of Mendelssohn’s age, gave an engaging glimpse into the composer’s life and inspiration.

A musical interpretation of Byron’s dramatic poem, Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture opened the programme, followed by the same composer’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. A work infused with Romantic heroism and brooding characterisation, the Manfred sees Schumann exploring the range of the orchestra and concludes beautifully in a hush of melodious sound.

Schumann’s A Minor Piano Concerto relies less on keyboard gymnastics characteristic of 19th century piano works and infinitely more on creating a meaningful dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The opening movement is particularly beautiful and pianist Nicholas Angelich delivered a performance of great sensitivity and subtlety, with exquisite interplay between piano and woodwind.

Written for Schumann’s beloved wife Clara, who performed as soloist at its premiere in 1845, the A Minor Concerto is a passionate and thoughtful work brought to life on this occasion by an equally engaged performance.

Mendelssohn began work on his Reformation Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op.107 in 1829 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ausberg Confession, and interestingly he considered it a failed work. It was not completed in time for the tercentenary celebrations in Berlin in 1830 due to illness, and not published until after the composer’s death.

As a commissioned public work the Symphony is permeated by sacred choral overtones in the use of Nauman’s Dresden Amen and Luther’s setting of Psalm 46, together with glimmers of a more popular and Romantic symphonic style Mendelssohn distilled in future works.

Ultimately a proclamation of the Reformation, the work does seem pedantic at times. Its themes are insistent and there is a sense of gravitas and occasion in the use of brass, woodwind and timpani, especially in the final movement. Thankfully there is also some wonderful instrumentation infused with feeling beyond stately solemnity.

In the third movement, and Andante in G Minor, mellow melodic strings and solo flute give a more introspective and expressive flavour to the work. The unity of the orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Yannick Nézet- Séguin was evident throughout, and despite not entering the concert hall a Mendelssohn fan, the SCO’s performance encouraged my appreciation and desire to hear more of the composer’s work.

It is easy to see why Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet- Séguin is so much in demand worldwide, an appeal that extends beyond his lively, almost balletic style to sensitive and compelling articulation of the musical score. It would be wonderful to see him at the helm of different touring orchestras exploring a range of musical styles and I hope this will be one of many future visits to the Highlands.

More Mendelssohn on 19 February when the RSNO bring an all-Mendelssohn programme to Eden Court

© Georgina Coburn, 2009