City Halls, Glasgow

five stars

Mozart may be the composer most readily associated with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but how his music is heard depends very much on the context in which it is played.

Regular guest conductor Francois Leleux found an individual way with Austria’s musical wunderkind by presenting him alongside two composers from his French homeland, and in arrangements of his own devising.

Firstly, though, we heard Mozart’s 25th Symphony, composed when he was in his late teens and a pivotal work – his first in a minor key and following his exposure to the “Sturm und Drang” symphonies of Haydn in Vienna. There is an ambiguity in the young Mozart’s work, however, that is rare in Haydn, which has led to some speculation about his personal frame of mind at the time.

Leleux located the romance other conductors find elusive, and, combined with the players’ Mozart expertise, the result was like a well-cut suit accessorised with an extravagant buttonhole and a bright pocket square.

Soprano soloist Carolyn Sampson joined the orchestra for the cantata Herminie, Berlioz’s 1828 tilt at the Prix de Rome, which won him second prize. Setting text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard, it is the confession of a Muslim princess infatuated with Christian crusader Tancredi, who loves Clorinda. Its narrative may seem arcane now, but the music is full of drama and Sampson delivered it with beautifully measured expression. The composer’s word-setting is superb and her diction was immaculate, while conductor and soloist had obviously planned the flow of its seven sections with great care.

The second half of this matinee concert began in a lighter tone with Leleux the oboe soloist in his own arrangements of arias from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (two of them in the mouth of flute-playing bird-catcher Papageno), cheekily dispensing entirely with flutes, as Mozart had done in the earlier symphony. This was sophisticated salon music, replete with humour and virtuosity with Leleux pirouetting on the podium in his dual player/director role.

Ravel’s Mother Goose suite, his 1911 orchestration of a work originally composed for two pianos, is full of stories, but the overall narrative is his wonderful orchestration, and Leleux shaped its symphonic sequence of tableaux and interludes with precision. Individual excellence came from Simon Smith’s celeste, Eleanor Hudson’s harp, Alison Green’s beastly contrabassoon, the violin of guest leader Pablo Hernan and guest first viola Anne Sophie van Riel. The conductor brought the work, and the concert, to a glorious climax.