SCO / Emelyanychev
City Halls, Glasgow
A printed programme, an interval, and the reopening of the City Halls bar to service the latter: a sure sign, at Friday’s SCO concert, that things are edging towards normal.
As for the concert itself, it was vintage Maxim Emelyanychev, even if that seems a slightly odd adjective to use for an SCO chief conductor still in his early 30s. But vintage it was, in the sense that the supercharged Russian whisked us through a heady mixed cocktail of Beethoven, Liszt, Sweelinck and Mendelssohn complete with the unexpected twists that are his permanent trademark.
There was one ingredient that didn’t quite come off. For the second half he prefaced Mendelssohn’s pious “Reformation” Symphony with his own arrangement of the Beati pauperes (motet settings of the New Testament Beatitudes) from Dutch Renaissance composer Jan Sweelinck’s Cantiones Sacrae.
In theory, the programmatic hypothesis made intriguing sense: Sweelinck, a Catholic who likely turned to Calvinism amid the religious turmoil of the 1570s; Mendelssohn, whose symphony celebrates the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protestant declaration in the 1530 Augsburg Confession. Played by a small ensemble on period instruments – sackbuts, serpent and Emelyanychev, himself, on cornett – there was a certain novelty and quaintness in witnessing this rarified sound world as a springboard to the Mendelssohn’s heavyweight stoicism.
The problem was its presentation. It would have worked better with a smoother segue between the two works than the complete set change we witnessed, especially as the Sweelinck was only minutes long. It made its presence seem more incongruous than inclusive.
Not that it obscured the collective success of the rest of the programme. From the very first note of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, it was clear that run-of-the-mill is not a phrase this conductor adheres to. Without losing the innate Classicism at the heart of the symphony, the natural momentum that carries it inexorably forward, Emelyanychev implanted magically judged gestures, momentary surprises, that cast it in an entirely fresh light. The unanimity of the SCO’s response was crucial in achieving that.
Then two refreshing minds came together, soloist Benjamin Grosvenor joining Emelyanychev and his team for a performance of Liszt’s single-movement Piano Concerto No 1 with compelling results. Grosvenor’s approach was utterly thrilling, on the one hand assertive and rhetorical, on the other eschewing indulgence and self-absorbed showmanship of the sort that so often skews the logic of Liszt’s cohesive thematic scheme.
I’ve never heard Grosvenor – who was famously the 11-year-old runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician finals – play with such authority and ingenuity. Not quite 30 yet, a remarkable, new-found maturity has set in.
With the quirkiness of the Sweelinck dispensed with, the closing Mendelssohn symphony brought us back to firm and fertile ground. In the wrong hands, the “Reformation”, with its robust “Ein’ feast Burg” chorale and echoing reference to the so-called Dresden Amen, can sound overly thick-set. With Emelyanychev it was anything but. Sparkle, airiness and transparency, and an SCO on top form, injected its reflective sincerity with optimistic affirmation.