Scottish Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds

Beethoven and Schumann

Greyfriars' Kirk, Edinburgh, 13 October 2008 4 stars

Simon TrpceskiApparently the plan envisaged this concert taking place in the newly-refurbished Usher Hall, hence the choice of Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture to open proceedings. (Mildly ironic, then, that the overture was composed for a revival of the play Ruins of Athens.) Instead, we found ourselves at Greyfriars' Kirk. Its sugary-bright acoustic is less than ideal, but there is (paradoxically) a likeable informality to the improvised setting. Audience and players mingle during the interval; I noticed conductor John Storgårds strolling around in his waistcoat, exchanging pleasantries.

There is no informality or sloppiness, though, once the performance begins. Although Consecration is an interesting laboratory of a piece, a little like the Bagatelles of the same creative period, it commands respect simply by the force of its execution of compositional technique. Storgårds set a dignified tempo in the French-style opening, and handily marshalled the contrapuntal chicanery of the Allegro. High marks so far for the young Finnish conductor, shortly to take over the Helsinki Philharmonic.

I say 'young'; I guess he's in his forties, which leaves me with nowhere to go with Simon Trpčeski, the twenty-something Macedonian pianist who's apparently beginning to build a reputation as an outstanding young virtuoso. I haven't heard the much-praised recordings, but what bothers me about the repertoire he's chosen to record thus far is that it doesn't strike me as particularly deeply thought through in terms of its programming. Given the present state of the classical music industry, you can't be entirely sure that the critics aren't just unnaturally thrilled to receive a new recording of any sort.

Beethoven's Emperor, then, suggests a challenging step up. Happily, Trpčeski stepped up in style, turning in a sparkling, muscular, but above all disciplined performance. The acoustic had the strange effect of shrinking the concert grand by enhancing its lighter timbres, making it sound more like a period instrument than one would normally expect; of course the SCO's chamber orchestra dimensions complemented this perfectly.

So we have the making of a well-dressed Emperor.  This is Beethoven in his prime, pushing the envelope of his technique both as pianist and composer, in the process making demands of the orchestra as well as the soloist. He wouldn't have cared for the regal epithet, but this is a mythical emperor, symbolic, puissant and fertile; actually, the leonine, romping finale might put one more in mind of the Sphinx. Storgårds and Trpčeski combined with the orchestra for a taut, virile reading, though a shaky transition from second to third movements was enough to remind us that the tautness is hard-won.

Schumann's Rhenish Symphony is listed as his third, but turns out to have been his fourth. Funny how composers don't seem to be too good at getting their numbering right, isn't it? In truth, this is Schumann past his best, but that doesn't mean that it should have no place in the repertoire. Indeed, the evening's strong first half allows scope for a bit of easing off. What are its failings? It's a question to ponder.

Perhaps we might query the audience to which it is addressed, a relatively unfamiliar and unconvinced Dusseldorf population, and the sceptical orchestra he directed there. There is simultaneously an assertiveness and a sort of needy compliance, the latter being especially evident in the inner movements. Like Mahler later, Schumann treats popular forms as a resource and a point of contact; unlike Mahler, though, he fails make a convincing whole out of the integration.

The first movement is undeniably strong, but its drive evaporates through the later movements. It all goes by without managing to engage either the emotions or the intellect. Storgårds brought out the best of the opening movement with its characteristically urgent, destabilizing syncopations. He chose to downplay the kitschier aspects of the interior movements, which might have been a mistake — but a classicist's instincts are not to be decried. He brought out the splendid brass writing in the finale to great effect; he did his best, dogdammit. I hope he's coming back to do some Sibelius soon.

By Peter Cudmore

Read recent concert reviews, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, here.