Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Jun Märkl

First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2013

BBC SSO/Märkl
City Halls, Glasgow

German conductor Jun Märkl has a reputation for stylish interpretations of French music: six years at the helm of the Orchestre National de Lyon and a full nine-disc set of Debussy’s orchestral works earned him his solid Gallic stripes. And there were moments during this BBC Scottish Symphony programme of Messiaen and Debussy when those stripes shone through, yet the overall picture never quite lived up.

The concert opened at its best with Messiaen’s rarely-performed Les offrandes oubliées: a bold ‘méditation symphonique’ and (incredibly) the composer’s earliest orchestral work. Märkl’s brush strokes were clear and decisive and the orchestra responded in kind – it made for a striking reminder that musical mysticism doesn’t need to be told in a whisper, nor French orchestral colours always painted through a haze.

That orchestral clarity underscored the whole evening, but what suited the youthful zeal of Les offrande sounded too square in the rapturous Poèmes pour Mi. Messiaen composed these nine songs for his first wife Claire Delbos, whom he nick-named Mi, and they’re as ecstatic as anything he wrote. Yet Märkl’s baton remained earthbound. He tempered the hot swells and flighty sighs and didn’t find nearly enough devilish bite in the deliciously wicked Épouvante. Soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers made a tremendous velvety sound but was too careful in her delivery, as though she, too, was guarding her passions.

After the interval the fragrant nights and festive mornings of Debussy’s Images were competently captured, and Ibéria had real poise with a sultry flamenco strut. But still Märkl lacked a soft touch around the edges and never seemed able, or willing, to let the music expand beyond its literal boundaries.

Kate Molleson