Czech Suite, Op.39
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although not billed as such, this gem of a concert marked Joseph Swensen’s farewell to the Proms as Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. At the end of the forthcoming season he leaves that position and, under the title of Conductor Emeritus, begins a looser arrangement with the orchestra, although (as I understand it) he will still be the major conducting lynchpin in the orchestra’s future seasons, there being no immediate plans to appoint a successor.

The SCO/Swensen partnership sparkles with wit, skill and generous music-making. All too-rarely heard south of the border (despite the LSO’s annual invitation – the SCO’s next foray to the Barbican is on 9 March as part of the Beethoven/Tippett festival), the SCO has always been a joy to hear and holds a strong position in its Scottish heartland, where artistic good news is at present hard to find. I noticed, with grim fatalism, that the initials of tonight’s composers DSS were more appropriate to the demise of the Scottish Opera Chorus (all too likely joining the dole queues at what used to be called the Department of Social Security, after the ill-judged and hopelessly short-sighted Scottish Executive decisions regarding funding for Scottish Opera).

But, on the Albert Hall platform, all was sweetness and light. Incredibly, Dvořák’s Czech Suite was receiving its Proms première. You would have thought that it would have been right up Sir Henry Wood’s street, but at least this suave and confident performance made up for lost time. Swensen likes to conduct in the lowest-common-denominator of beats, so most triple-time tempos were conducted in one, and his players responded admirably.

Almost as inexplicable as the Czech Suite’s absence is the fact that Schumann’s Second Symphony was being given only its fourth performance in 110 seasons! Again Swensen’s performance was geared to putting the record straight. This is Schumann’s symphonic masterpiece and it received a glowing performance, astutely judged to eschew the common (misguided) view that Schumann ‘over-orchestrated’ – perhaps helped by Swensen’s decision to have the violins arranged antiphonally. This music is organic, and the way the final brass perorations join the finale’s main theme always brings a tingle to my spine.

Swensen took the opening bars of the symphony in a slow single beat to cohere the music into a propulsive statement that never ceased to grip and excite. He also made the slow movement the emotional heart of the work, bringing yearning, expressive playing, especially from the woodwinds. Quite simply, this was a triumph.

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski delivered a glittering performance of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto, with the irrepressible second movement dancing merrily away and matched by the power of invention in the outer movements. Trpčeski usually seems in auto-pilot mode, but here he was alert not only to technical challenges but the sheer good-natured fun of the piece – as evidenced by the rise-and-fall of his shoulders as he pounded out the heavier rhythm in the scherzo. His encore was Rachmaninov’s Daisies (Op.38/2), although his intention to hold the final chord was destroyed by an inveterate cougher.

This was a wonderfully enjoyable Prom.

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