Festivals are times for rediscovering outstanding music. In their concert performance of this rarity alongside Schubert's little known opera Die Freunde von Salamanka at the Usher Hall on Tuesday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra scored one hit and one miss.
Sarka is a red-blooded piece based on Czech mythology, with warrior maidens, tomb scenes and a self-immolation. The score is unbelievably rich; majestic, violent, languorous and frenetic by turns, it floats searing dramatic voices on top of a dense orchestral texture that is almost too unrelenting, too much on full throttle.
Sarka herself (Helena Kaupova) was thrilling; William Kendall as the hero Ctirad had an exhilarating tenor but sang rather carefully in the unfamiliar sounds of Czech. Christopher Ventris was a firmly focused Lumir and Neal Davies a sonorous Premysl.
The Scottish Opera Chorus sang vibrantly, but were not always on the beat. However, the conductor, David Robertson, had such thrust and swing that the whole piece roared past on a sort of storming agitato, an extraordinary testament to the powers of the 33-year-old composer.
Schubert, admittedly, was only 18 when he wrote the other opera. The spoken dialogue has been lost, so sections of the story were told by an infuriatingly arch Juliet Stevenson, making it hard to appreciate the sentiment. Most of the numbers were hopelessly unmotivated; the most interesting feature was a recurrence of nature texts (the heroine, Olivia, buoyantly sung by Anne Dawson, was given to walks in the country) which apparently made the composer think of Haydn's Creation, still a new work in 1815.
Otherwise, the score is mainly scales and arpeggios in C major; the music is square and rudimentary. Just once in a while there is the ghost of a foretaste of the master; Laura's aria, sung sweetly and seductively by Rebecca Evans, had intriguing twists of harmony almost good enough for Weber.
The BBC SSO could not, of course, bring to Schubert the depths of string tone of the Philharmonia orchestra, which played the great C major symphony the previous evening. The conductor was to have been Erich Leinsdorf, but he fell ill at the last minute and was replaced by Marek Janowski.
When a stranger comes to take over an orchestra, he sometimes looks as though he is conducting a record. Janowski gestured, quelled, exhorted. The orchestra pressed on in a kind of bemused complacency, the opening horn figure waterlogged, the woodwind solos shapeless, the relentless power of the finale more like a dogged treadmill.
Janacek's Sinfonietta was much better; but one was unsure whether this laid-back playing was really planned or just a matter of routine.Reuse content