Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Watanabe

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

AS if the guest soloist for the music of Mr and Mrs Mahler being mezzo Karen Cargill was not sufficient reason for attending this SCO concert — and it most certainly was — the conductor deputising for an indisposed Mark Wigglesworth provided another. Kensho Watanabe impressed last March when he took charge of the RSNO’s Carmina Burana, and his facility with big music was on display again here with one of the largest SCO’s line-ups (including four flutes and four percussionists) playing Gustav Mahler’s 4th Symphony. As well as very fine ensemble across the strings, there was punchy soloing from leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, first horn Philip Munds and bassoon Annette Falk among many others.

Watanabe’s was a reading that contrived to be both stately and full of vim, culminating in Cargill singing The Heavenly Life from the choir stalls. There are some singers for whom that might have been a lousy idea, but it was perfect here, the folkloric source underlined as if she had appeared at an upstairs window in an Alpine village.

That orchestral gig is core repertoire for Scotland’s international singing star, but the six Alma Mahler songs she performed in the first half are less often heard, particularly in their 1996 Matthews orchestrations. Although she had the score in front of her, Cargill rarely consulted it, soaring effortlessly over the lush accompaniment on material that demands a voice of power across a wide range. A nocturnal light, setting Bierbaum, is close to being a show tune in its melody, and there are touches of that in the long narrative of the up-tempo lullaby In my father’s garden, and the closing Rilke setting. With some very fine playing from the start by Maximiliano Martin and his clarinet colleagues, this was a rare treat.

Mozart was a little older than the song-writing Alma Mahler when he composed Idomeneo, and the opera’s overture is less often heard in the concert hall than those for his Da Ponte collaborations. It made a fine opener to this programme, however, even if it has a somewhat weak ending as a stand-alone.