Lammermuir: BBC SSO/Whelan
St Mary’s Church, Haddington
The former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan is forging a formidable reputation as a conductor, not just with his own group Ensemble Marsyas, but with a growing number of orchestras that recognise the spark he brings to the podium. The coming season adds to his conquests a Vivaldi opera the Royal Opera House and a guest appearance in Finland with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.
On Saturday, Whelan took charge of the BBC SSO in a programme that reinforced his natural affinity with the clinical panache of the Classical symphony and the ultra-fine sensitivity of Benjamin Britten.
He began with Haydn, and the joyous adventuring of the 1760s’ Symphony No 35 in B flat. It features the composer in a mood of relaxed excitability, and in this performance, as rhythmically taut as it was expressively supple, Whelan allowed its myriad surprises to surface gleefully within a framework of logic and symmetry.
The SSO horns made light work of Haydn’s stratospheric demands. The strings evoked a warmth that only once – in the exposed violin melodies of the Andante – seemed to waver, perhaps due to the players’ continued social distancing. The curt ending, a kind of “that’s all folks” dismissal, was entirely in keeping with the tempered humour Whelan elicited from its four movements.
Britten’s 1958 Nocturne for tenor and small orchestra, written as a companion piece to the more familiar Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and dedicated to Alma Mahler, transported us into a giddy world of dreams as expressed through selected texts from Shelley, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare.
Tenor Joshua Ellicott expressed Britten’s continuous sequence exquisitely and intimately, the penetrating purity of his voice capable of harnessing intense passion as well as serene mysticism, and everything in between. The result was a performance of compelling poeticism and powerfully controlled tension, further enhanced by the strings’ gossamer precision and evocative wind solos.
Mozart’s popular Symphony No 40, cheeriness in a minor key, gave a final pleasing symmetry to this programme. It was fast and fearless, with just an occasional blurring of the edges in these generous ecclesiastical acoustics. As in the Haydn, Whelan revealed a willingness to hand much of the responsibility to the players, economic in his gestures, but always at hand to bring down a decisive beat and keep the outer skin firmly in place.
There was real chemistry in this performance. The SSO should further this conductor relationship.