SCO / Emelyanychev
Perth Concert Hall
James MacMillan’s new Violin Concerto No 2, given its world premiere last week by co-dedicatee Nicola Benedetti, boasts a lengthy list of co-commissioners – The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Adam Mickewicz Institute and Dallas Symphony Orchestras – so we can safely assume it is guaranteed to have several key performances in the immediate future.
It was with the SCO that the honour of presenting the very first performance of this intriguing concerto fell, part of the orchestra’s opulent, and clearly popular, season opener in Perth. At the helm was chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, a musician of mesmerising unpredictability, never boring, often illuminating, willing to take daring chances where others wouldn’t.
So what would he, and what would Benedetti, make of a work that MacMillan composed during lockdown, additionally dedicating it to a Polish composer he much admired, Krzysztof Penderecki, who died in 2020? In recent interviews, he had alluded to a work of sincere intimacy, freshly explored musical solutions and very personal flashes of wit and reflection.
If this initial performance didn’t appear to capture all of these, it did challenge the listener to make sense of a work that is dizzily transient in style, novel in the imaginative relationships it explores between soloists and orchestra, and tough in the perception of its overall shape.
In this initial performance, both Benedetti and Emelyanychev seemed, at times, preoccupied with resolving the last of these points. There were so many individual moments to savour: the playful succession of “conversations” to be had with individual players in the orchestra, from the soloist’s pugnacious encounter with timpani to a lustrous engagement with lead violin, Joel Bardelot; or such lighter episodes where MacMillan slackens the tension with parodic interjections of Scots reels or German burlesque. But there was also a discomforting fragmentation in Benedetti’s overall presentation that suggested this is a work she has to live with for a while to get fully to grips with.
That said, the poise she brought to that heart-stopping moment where the opening material recapitulates, and the delicacy of those final bird-like exchanges with the flutes, were as ravishing as they were conclusive.
As for the rest of this programme, the term mixed fortunes comes to mind. It opened brilliantly with John Adams’ The Chairman’s Dances, extracted by the composer from his first opera, Nixon in China. The impact was immediate, Emelyanychev’s vital downbeat setting the incessant mechanised energy in motion as if switching on a light, then drawing endless detail from the constantly shifting textures, and variously caressing the score’s more restful episodes with wit, airiness and finesse.
Where he succeeded with the Adams in extracting the absolute best from the SCO, that was not always the case in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. Emelyanychev took massive liberties with this – an opening Adagio so laboured-over it risked being dismembered, and a general overindulgence that threatened the symphony’s natural momentum, provoked nervous mishaps with exposed entries, and ignored some dubious brass intonation.
Not all of it fell flat, the central movements far tighter in spirit and execution than the outer ones, and therein a sizzling clarity from the orchestra. But as a whole, this was not a performance that always knew where it was going.
Further performances at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Thu 29 Sep; and City Halls, Glasgow on Fri 30 Sep