The Scottish Chamber Orchestra set conductor Jonathon Heyward some acoustic challenges on the last dates of its summer tour schedule. As my colleague Ken Walton noted elsewhere, Troon Town Hall is a boomy barn of a building, while the stage at Cumbernauld presented the opposite problem, with black drapes from floor to flies absorbing a lot of sound.
To the credit of all involved, and Heyward in particular, that became easy to ignore as the evening progressed. Mendelssohn’s overture The Fair Melusine fared worst with the natural trumpets in particular having an odd muted sound and the winds rather less clear than we know to expect from these players.
Nonetheless, there was some lovely playing from the flutes and first clarinet Maximiliano Martin and principal bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans had shared the first notes of the piece before they stepped to the front of the stage as soloists in Richard Strauss’s Duet-Concertino.
Following hard on the heels of Scottish Opera’s Daphne, here was another rare opportunity to hear music from the end of the composer’s career. Sounding much better further forward in the space, it begins with just a string sextet accompanying the soloists, flowing clarinet lines answered by the bassoon in characterful exchanges. The conversation develops in deliciously inventive phrases, some of which resolve in predictable ways, others more edgy and abrasive, while the string orchestra alternately shimmers or adds deep chords as it comments on or echoes the soloists.
Only later do the two solo instruments begin to overlap and intertwine, and Martin and Ambrose-Evans told their story eloquently, as Strauss had great fun with the full ranges of their instruments.
They also had a short duet in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, which made up the second half of the concert. This was a beautifully measured reading of the work from Heyward, communicating with great clarity to all sections of the orchestra. His gestures and deportment are entirely different, but there is a similarity of technique with SCO principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev in his batonless use of very expressive hands.
In that opening movement, and perhaps especially the Scherzo, the Fourth is full of details that could be the work of no other composer, and Heyward made certain that we heard Beethoven at his most playfully Beethovian in the shifts of rhythm and dynamics. And Ambrose-Evans was still on her best game for the bubbling figure she has in the work’s sparkling finale.