SCO / Maxim’s Eroica

City Halls, Glasgow

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has opened its Golden Jubilee season with a bullish programme geared to speak proudly and confidently of this milestone achievement, but also, one might add, of a future that will surely be shaped with the completion, now in sight, of its new purpose-built Edinburgh home, the long-awaited Dunard Centre. 

In the here and now, and in a packed Glasgow City Halls on Thursday, the celebratory atmosphere was palpable. Billed as “Maxim’s Eroica”, Beethoven’s (even now) mind-blowing Third Symphony was the destination point. But before that there was the promise of an epic Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto from the pile-driving Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein, and the latest new work from the SCO’s current associate composer, New Cumnock-born Jay Capperauld.

“Maxim”, of course, refers to the orchestra’s hot-rod principal conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev. Only the uninitiated might have expected an off-the-shelf Eroica from this tantalising and unpredictable Russian. This one was a customised flyer, an Eroica supercharged in a way that stripped away the corrosive layers of successive performance traditions to reveal the absolute purity of Beethoven, the sharpness of the drama, the visionary essence of the turbulent and fearless personality, all built around an unshakeable, faithfully preserved chassis.

The detail and insight were extraordinary, extracted with a natural empathy for the possibilities Beethoven presents: a naturally-crafted elasticity in the sculpting of phrases that never once rocked the music’s inevitable flow; a slow movement – the Marcia funebre – as impressive for its lyrical sweetness and chamber-like intimacy as its measured rigidity; a Scherzo touched more by spirited refinement than the typical race-to-the-finish; and an utterly self-assured Finale, free of bombast, rich in expressive substance and directional focus.

It was the perfect counterpoint to Capperauld’s concert opener, the glistening surreal sound world of The Origin of Colour, commissioned by the SCO for this programme, and based on Italo Calvino’s short story, Without Colours, from his speculative fiction series Cosmicomics. It imagines the concept of a grey-only world suddenly and frighteningly transformed by the creation of colour.

Colour is the driving factor in Capperauld’s dizzying score – a wild, effervescent tapestry of instrumental polyphony arising from primitive percussive and vocalised utterances, driven to its delirious, sometimes whimsical, heights by virile rhythmic ostinati. There’s a whiff of minimalism that heightens the mystique, and a starry opulence – gloriously captured in this performance – that suggests Capperauld could easily turn his hand to the ways of Hollywood soundtracks.

Where Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concert No 1 might have been anticipated as a sure-fire winner, this performance by Gerstein – using Tchaikovsky’s original version rather than the more familiar revised posthumous edition – was more unnerving than satisfying. The opening movement, despite the uncommon charm of the opening piano chords served up as arpeggios,  never really settled, Gerstein lost in his own combative world, heavy handed and over-peddling, as if Storm Agnes was still with us. 

If the ensuing movements offered more in the way of lyrical eloquence and a crisper meeting of minds, the underlying turbulence never quite receded. All of which was a pity, given the exceptional and sensitive playing from the SCO. 

The second leg in this 50th Anniversary season opening tour travels to Stirling (Tuesday), Ayr (Wednesday) and Aberdeen (Saturday), in which the Tchaikovsky is replaced by Bruch’s rarely-heard Concerto for Clarinet and Viola. VoxCarnyx’s Keith Bruce will be there to review it.

Ken Walton