SCO / Emelyanychev
City Halls, Glasgow
It helps to get off to a good start. That’s as much the case for journalists – are you still with me? – as it is for musicians, be they performers or composers. This SCO programme, guided by the impishly convincing eccentricity of chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, was all about good attention-grabbing openings.
First up, those three arresting chords that herald Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, in this case supercharged with electrifying brutality, yet still seriously solemn to the core. It was a call to attention no one could ignore, least of all the SCO whose response was instant and penetrating.
Then, as if to intensify the conflict inherent in Mozart’s final opera – an intellectual discourse steeped in the symbolism of Enlightenment ideals and Freemasonry disguised, as all good satire is, within pantomimic nonsense – Emelyanychev played feverishly with the music’s jostling extremes. Responding to the stern chords, a hell-for-leather fugue bristled with red-hot energy, superbly intensified by sparky symphonic jousting, individual instruments firing out motivic one-liners like petulant points of order only to be countered by matching reaction. In total, and in every sense, what an opener.
The tone changed completely for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and an introductory 8-bar cello and bass melody that cast a sense of mystery and awe, its simple melodic framework woven with unhurried deliberation and expressive wholesomeness, almost complete in itself.
What impressed here and beyond was the intoxicating sensitivity Emelyanychev drew from the SCO, every utterance freshly conceived, every detailed moment worth savouring. Again, his role was simply to set the scene and inspire freedom within a performance that oozed spontaneity within his prescribed vision. With such casual, but never laboured, tempi the impression was one of leisure well spent. If ever there was an argument for Schubert leaving these two movements as they were (he did sketch out ideas for a third movement) this was it.
As openings go, a deafening whistle blast from a referee is something guaranteed to send the adrenalin into overdrive. It did so – timpanist Louise Lewis Goodwin doubling pointedly on said whistle – in James MacMillan’s Eleven, a succinct concert work about football written last year and premiered by the SCO on tour in Antwerp, now receiving its UK premiere. Raucous, impetuous, and symbolising everything in the “beautiful game” from terrace chants and on-pitch exuberance to post-match melancholy, it’s typical of MacMillan that he finds musical depth and allure in such a commonplace scenario.
Even the number eleven presents him with intellectual stimulus, feisty combative themes that seem to snap off prematurely (twelve possesses more rounded proportions, but would be less provocative), dense harmonies that mask the familiarity of such familiar tunes as “Auld Lang Syne” (I wasn’t aware it had common football usage?) and flavour the unexpectedly demure ending to an otherwise bombastic entertainment.
Emelyanychev certainly viewed his own solo role in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 in E-flat as genuine entertainment. He performed on, and directed from, the fortepiano, intrinsically a delicate instrument, but played here with such incisive sparkle that, even in those moments where the orchestra surged powerfully, the Russian’s playful motions were still enough to convey his intentions.
Nor did he stick religiously to the written score, something the famously spontaneous Mozart would no doubt have approved of. Where he felt the urge, Emelyanychev casually threw in impromptu right-handed flourishes, either stolen from existing instrumental lines or fruitily embellished, though never at the expense of the composer’s core material. In that, this enlightening performance was charmingly authentic, with some initiatives – such as occasionally cutting the string ripieno down, concert grosso-style, to solo quintet – that sharpened the intimacy.
Then there was Emelyanychev’s quirky opening, a moment that caught us all on the hop, where the pre-match tuning process morphed almost unnoticed into an improvised fortepiano transition, its final paused chord providing the expectant springboard to the music proper. It’s not often the very opening note of a Mozart concerto brings with it an appreciative snigger from the audience, but such is Emelyanychev’s confident appeal, and such was the power of this unexpected gesture. He encored with the slow movement from Mozart’s similarly-scored K.488 concerto.