SCO / Altstaedt

City Halls, Glasgow

Although its regular Friday venue was just over half-filled, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra may judge the experiment of a 2pm matinee – the first of three concerts moved to that slot during its 50th anniversary season – a success. Friday evenings have seen smaller houses, and there was a palpable buzz in this audience.

That was substantially down to the quality of the music-making. To start at the end, the concluding performance of Mozart’s Symphony No 38 , the “Prague”, was as vibrant and colourful as you’d expect of a work that has been core SCO repertoire for its history. This orchestra would turn out fine late Mozart without the help of a conductor, and it initially seemed that cellist/director Nicolas Altstaedt realised that and did not impose, although his podium presence was energetic enough.

There was, nonetheless, something very distinctive about Altsteadt’s handling of the opening of the Andante, with its changes of key and chromatic shifts, and the Presto finale rarely sounds quite so anticipatory of the revolutions of Beethoven as it did here.

The Mozart was something of an outlier in this programme, however –  Eastern European in the location of its premiere and nickname alone. We had begun with the early work of his older contemporary Franz Joseph Haydn at the Esterhazy court, with Altsteadt soloist and director of the Cello Concerto in C.

In our era full of rediscovered works, compositions neglected for cultural and socio-political reasons, this is one that simply went AWOL for a couple of centuries before turning up in Prague in 1961. Now firmly re-established in the canon, there was much of the era from which it was lost in the sound and manner of Altstaedt’s approach to the work, using a baroque bow on gut strings.

His first movement cadenza emerged as a thing of mesmerising wonder, a delicate web of notes, and the one in the Adagio was just as beautiful, the space between them as important as the notes themselves. His direction of the ensemble was of a piece with that, the Finale brisk-paced and full of detail.

We remained in the same geographical locale but moved to the mid-20th century for the two works on either side of the interval. Altsteadt the conductor delighted in the rich orchestration of Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, as well as in fast tempi and changes of pace and gear, the nimble SCO demonstrating its collective ability to turn on a dime. First clarinet Maximiliano Martin was the star soloist, finding exactly the right, slightly earthy, tone for the work.

The four short Transylvanian Dances of Kodaly’s pupil Sandor Veress were the least familiar compositions of the programme and proved a real treat, Altsteadt joining Philip Higham on the front desk of the cellos to direct the string ensemble. The pair’s mournful duet at the start of the third one, underscoring Max Mandel’s solo viola, was just one memorable ingredient of a sequence that climaxed in something even closer to a ceilidh than the Kodaly, with foot-stomps and vocal exclamations all part of the mix.

Keith Bruce