SCO / van Soeterstede
City Halls, Glasgow
The old cliché about the odd numbered Beethoven symphonies out-lasting the evens never really worked with the Pastoral, and a remarkable run of performances of No 4 in pre-pandemic times made a very eloquent case for it as well.
Symphony No 8’s relative brevity to those on either side of it mean it is sometimes especially belittled, including by the composer himself, but also makes it an attractive programming option. Its compact arc can create the temptation for conductors to keep the orchestra on a tight leash until the boisterous finale, but French conductor Chloe van Soeterstede was having none of that.
Ideal for the smaller forces of a chamber orchestra, the Eighth is brisk from start to finish and van Soeterstede made sure that pace – while never slacking – was very accurately measured. There is much musical jest and japery in the work, in unexpected notes and combinations of instruments, staccato chords and offbeat accents, and the conductor missed none of the gags. She also found an element of darkness in the Minuet’s septet of solo cello, horns, pizzicato basses, clarinet and bassoon that set up the pell-mell finish perfectly.
It was the culmination of a fine programme that had begun with the Symphony No 1 of neglected 19th century German composer Emilie Mayer. Some of Mayer’s songs featured in Golda Schulz’s recital of lost works by women composers at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, and here was evidence that her orchestral works – she wrote a further seven symphonies – are also ripe for rediscovery.
The models of her male predecessors in her homeland are much in evidence early on in the symphony, but she then goes very much her own way, with some starling changes of pace and direction later on. As with the Beethoven, this was a score very well suited to an ensemble with 24 strings.
In between was the star attraction of mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, singing the six songs of Les nuits d’ete that might have been written for her, had Hector Berlioz not in fact orchestrated them for his second wife, thus creating the first example of such a cycle.
It does have a lovely shape to it as well, beautifully communicated by Cargill, from the optimistic opening Villanelle, through the darkness of bereavement and loss, to the relatively upbeat, if uncertain, closer, L’ile inconnue. Scotland’s international singing star was on absolutely magnificent form, her superb instrument of burnished tone across the whole of its range, but always all about engaging the attention of the listener on a one-to-one basis.
There was plenty of instructive example here for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students in attendance. Their intensive study with Cargill this coming week will culminate in a Cumnock Tryst recital in the Ayrshire town’s Trinity Church on Saturday April 28.
Portrait of Chloe van Soeterstede by Olivia da Costa