Review: BBCSSO at 80

First published in the Guardian on 4 December, 2015

This was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s 80th birthday concert but the programme — an arcane memorial for a recently deceased friend by artist-in-association Matthias Pintscher plus Mahler’s raging farewell to life and love Das Lied von der Erde — didn’t exactly scream ‘party’. Francois Leleux added Mozart’s ebullient Oboe Concerto to the mix with an impossibly beautiful sound and souped-up operatic delivery that jarred like a glossy grin at a wake.

What the programme was designed to do was show off the BBCSSO’s considerable prowess in contemporary and romantic repertoire — and it did, almost, with some plush string passages and razor-fine wind and brass. But the best of this orchestra’s power and focus never surfaced. Pintscher’s conducting was proficient and occasionally detailed but lacked warmth and charisma, and crucially his Mahler didn’t breathe. It was as though the composer in him couldn’t stop analysing, highlighter pen out, and the bigger flow felt stop-start as a result. Tenor Andrew Staples shouted hard to be heard above the massive orchestral throng Mahler unleashes in the drinking songs; Anna Larsson stood in for an indisposed Sarah Connolly and sang with a heavy, glowering kind of beauty.

Pintscher opened with a piece of his own called Idyll, a 30-minute tombeau for an elderly friend that wraps quiet orchestral mesh around a pre-existing piano piece called On A Clear Day. It’s delicate stuff: the orchestra pauses to linger on a low flute line, unison violin theme or clarinet soliloquy, all played with whispered poise by the BBCSSO. Pintscher’s works are always expertly put-together with intricate referencing between instruments and textures that shimmer and sometimes beguile — that’s true of Idyll, too, but the rhetoric here is clearer, leaner and less conspicuously clever, with more space and light between elements and a relative simplicity that’s refreshing.