Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Queens Hall, Edinburgh
Monday 07 January 2008
Johann Strauss's Vienna is doubly engaged in nostalgia: the yearning of his age for the Holy Empire of Maria Theresa, and our own yearning for the city of Strauss himself. Of course, Maria Theresa's Vienna was cruel and squalid, Strauss's corrupt and hollow. But our imagination fills this world with a regret for lost splendour that colours every bar of this music.
It takes a Viennese orchestra to capture this, as the Vienna Philharmonic do in their New Year's concert. But the Scottish Chamber Orchestra managed to bring in the new year by playing Strauss as though he were French: noisy, vulgar and straightforward.
The arrangements of these pieces are brass-centred, making them sound overwhelming in this small space. But it is the breathless approach to a violin melody, the tiny gasp in mid-phrase, the self-indulgence of a soaring tune, that give life to this composer's ideas. Without these elements, they are just ephemera.
The conductor, Nicholas McGegan, occasionally brought out the detail of Strauss's scores, especially in the Emperor Waltz, with the tune nobly led by the sound of a horn, symbol of imperial grandeur. The old pastoral Austria was echoed in the rhythms of the Champagne Polka, here not rustic enough.
But the must-have tune, the "Blue Danube", lacked poignancy. The famous Viennese lift, a slight delay to the last beat of the bar, was not attempted. And several of these big waltzes have a poetic introduction and coda, little tone poems full of longing. They went for nothing here.
The only French item on the programme was Offenbach's tedious cancan from Orpheus in the Underworld. No nostalgia there; the French never had time for their kings and queens. There were to have been several Offenbach operetta numbers sung by Karen Cargill, but the singer was ill. It was a great loss.
There was a rarity, "Memory of Covent Garden", a medley of English music-hall songs with added military trumpet calls from the old Vienna. Of course, the concert really ended with the Radetzky March by Strauss's father, with everyone clapping.
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