Tag Archives: Maxim Emelyanychev

EIF: SCO / Emeyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Max Bruch would surely be dismayed to know how much he is still identified with the first of his three violin concertos (which he sold to a publisher for a pittance), his later Scottish Fantasy its only real rival in the modern repertoire.

Nicola Benedetti plays both, of course, and few regular concertgoers in Scotland will never have heard her perform the concerto during her starry early career. It is a box office favourite, and best known for the Hungarian dance music of the Finale, written for the work’s virtuoso dedicatee Joseph Joachim, who had no small hand in the shaping of the piece.

If you were fortunate enough to be hearing it for the first time at the start of the final week of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, however, you will have heard another side to the concerto – and one that might have gratified its long-dead composer.

Benedetti, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev put the focus firmly on the central Adagio movement, treating the faster music around it almost as supporting furniture. It was a glorious account of a beautifully structured part of the work that takes its themes through many changes of key, falling figures in the winds playing against climbing ones in the solo line, and lush interplay that owes much to Mendelssohn and to Schubert.

With little more pause before the Finale than there is between the first and second movements, Emelyanychev and Benedetti made a wonderful arc of the whole piece, the violinist allowing neither her cadenza at the end of the Vorspiel nor her first bar of the Allegro energico to disturb the flow.

Of course, the faster showier music was still there, and few play it with more panache than Benedetti, but it was far from the whole story here.

For an encore, Emelyanychev was at the piano for another familiar favourite recorded early on by Benedetti – the Meditation from Thais by Massenet.

After that, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for The Sleeping Beauty could almost seem an exotic choice, but Emelyanychev chose to play a sequence of music that eloquently told the tale that everyone knows, even if some of the score is much more familiar than other parts.

Guest principal clarinet Yann Ghiro, first trumpet Shaun Harrold, principal cello Philip Higham and harpist Eleanor Hudson all made telling solo contributions, but it was the precision tempi of the ensemble – playing as if in a pit for a performance – that impressed most. The music at the end of Act I built to a sumptuous peak from which the marvel was being able to continue, although the Entr’acte Symphonique of Act 2 matched it.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Ryan Buchanan

Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Emelyanychev

Stirling Castle

Controversial though its appearance was at the turn of the millennium, the restored Great Hall of Stirling Castle cuts a fine figure on the skyline on a sunny day. It is none too shabby on the inside too, and possibly the sort of concert venue Mozart and his contemporaries would have recognised, if a little more austere.

Although we were on familiar repertoire territory for the SCO in this summer tour concert under Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, there was little that was routine or predictable about what a capacity audience heard. Most obviously, that was in the symphony after the interval by Moravian composer Pavel Vranicky, born the same year as Mozart and outliving him only into the first decade of the 19th century.

Hugely prolific and much admired in his time, Vranicky (aka Paul Wranitzky) may well lack a place in the modern canon simply because he is not Mozart or Beethoven or Haydn, although his music is attractive enough. Perhaps, in the way that more obscure Baroque composers have recently been rediscovered, his day will come again.

In Emelyanychev’s hands, his Opus 36 Symphony in D (of which there seems to be just a single recording, by Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players, in the catalogue) emerged as much Beethovian as Mozartian, which is perhaps unsurprising from the pen of the man who conducted the Vienna premiere of Ludwig’s Symphony No 1. The young Russian conductor also brought his Baroque sensibility to the interpretation, especially on the third movement Polonese, an ideal encore piece for this orchestra if ever there was one. Hearing the whole work, however, gave a particular delight to the symphony’s extravagant conclusion. In another genre it would be called a “jam ending” – cue smiles all round.

SCO principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin had a generous share of the melody line in the Vranicky and he was the undoubted star of the evening for his immaculate performance of the Second Clarinet Concerto by Carl Maria von Weber, cheered to the historic building’s visible rafters at its end. Ever the showman, the Spaniard was at his theatrical best on a work that displayed his precision articulation and lightning-speed fluency. Weber wrote more demandingly for clarinet than Mozart, but Martin delighted in the bold leaps across the range of the instrument. Nor is the work merely a showpiece for the soloist, with some dramatic writing for the orchestra as well, and a particularly lovely pizzicato strings conclusion to the slow second movement here.

As many would have been hoping and expecting, Martin had an encore up his sleeve: one of the nine Hommages for solo clarinet by Hungarian Bela Kovacs, who died late last year. He chose not the one for Weber, or the de Falla which can still be seen online as part of the Scotsman’s award-winning pandemic-initiated “Sessions” project, but the penultimate of the series, for Zoltan Kodaly.

The programme had begun with Mozart’s Symphony No 38, the “Prague”, with Emelyanychev setting the theatrical tone of the evening from the first bar, in an interpretation full of drama and dynamic colouring. Those colours are often dark at the start of the ground-breaking first of the composer’s big four final symphonies, and the conductor then found something slightly sleazy in the languid chromatics of the second movement. The playful rhythmic games of the Presto finale are also right up his street, with precise, crisp work in the winds and a beautifully integrated string ensemble.

Keith Bruce

Programme repeated tonight in Dunoon’s Queen’s Hall; Emelyanychev and the SCO then match the Mozart with Haydn in Glenrothes and Musselburgh with Principal Cello Philip Higham as soloist.

SCO 22/23 Season

Two premieres from the pen of Sir James MacMillan and a focus on the work of Brahms by Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev are the headline attractions in the new season unveiled by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The first of the MacMillans will be his Second Violin Concerto, with soloist Nicola Benedetti, for whom it has been written. The world premiere will take place at the end of September, shortly after the violinist has taken up her new post as director of the Edinburgh International Festival. It will be conducted by Emelyanychev in a concert that also includes John Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.

The other new Macmillan work is a short piece on a football theme that had its world premiere in Antwerp last week as part of the repertoire the SCO took on its European tour. The first UK performances of “Eleven” will be next March in concerts Emelyanychev is directing with himself as soloist on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22, K482.

The conductor is at the harpsichord for a programme of “Baroque Inspirations” in November that teams Vivaldi with Grieg, Hindemith and Gorecki. At the end of  February he conducts an all-Brahms concert with the Symphony No. 1, preceded by the Violin Concerto with Aylen Pritchin as soloist, and at the start of March an all-Mendelssohn one with the Italian Symphony and the Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The season concludes next May with Brahms’ German Requiem, Sophie Bevan and Hanno Muller-Brachman the soloists and Gregory Batsleer’s SCO Chorus concluding a busy year. The same two singers are joined by tenor Andrew Staples for The Creation by Haydn in October, with Emelyanychev again conducting, and Richard Egarr directs Handel’s Israel in Egypt in December, with Rowan Pierce, Mary Bevan, Helen Charlston, James Gilchrist and Andrew Foster-Williams the soloists.

Other familiar faces conducting and directing concerts include Clemens Schuldt, with a November concert that includes Alban Gerhardt giving the Scottish premiere of the cello concerto written for him by Julian Anderson, Peter Whelan with music of the Scottish Enlightenment, Andrew Manze, Joseph Swensen, Joana Carniero, Francois Leleux and violinist Anthony Marwood.

Next Spring, Bernard Labadie directs an evening of music Handel wrote for Royal occasions, joined by singers Lydia Teuscher, Iestyn Davies and Neal Davies, following a fortnight residency by Finnish violin maestro Pekka Kuusisto who has singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and tenor Allan Clayton, singing Britten’s Les Illuminations, as soloists and composer Nico Muhly featuring in both programmes.

The star names keep coming at the season’s end, with mezzo Karen Cargill singing Berlioz and cellist Laura van der Heijden playing Shostakovich in April and Lawrence Power giving the Scottish Premiere of Cassandra Miller’s Viola Concerto, under the baton of John Storgards, in May.

Full details at sco.org.uk

SCO/ Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s marketing department sold this season-closer under the banner “Maxim’s Firebird” and energetic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev obliged by delivering a singular account of Stravinsky’s score that was only predictable in its unpredictability.

Preceded by the encapsulation of Beethoven’s craft that is the Leonore Overture No 3 and the equally compact and radical First Violin Concerto of Prokofiev, with Alina Ibragimova as soloist, this was a concert of music usually heard by larger orchestras performed by a big edition of the SCO that made explicit use and purpose of its chamber music sensibilities.

In all cases, but especially in the Stravinsky, the result was revelatory. There were details in the music that appeared fresh and newly-minted; from Simon Smith’s celesta and piano and Eleanor Hudson’s harp on the one hand, and from first horn Zoe Tweed, first flute Daniel Pailthorpe and the regulars on the reed instruments on the other.

Just as important, though, was the dynamic control the conductor produced from the musicians all evening. That was evident in his clear insistence on playing more softly at the start of the Beethoven, and reached its apotheosis in the sequence of Rondo, Infernal dance, Lullaby and Hymn at the culmination of the Stravinsky. There have been louder Firebirds, but few with such contrasts in sound and mood, turning on a sixpence with breath-catching impact, and with a momentum that was truly magnificent.

Towards the end of Overture, following a perfectly positioned off-stage trumpet, there was a brief sense that the winds were overloud, even as the strings produced an impressive pianissimo, but in the Firebird Suite (the version Stravinsky made in 1945) the balance was always fascinating. It should be remembered that this is the hall in which Emelyanychev and the SCO worked on filmed music during lockdown, so they know the acoustic well.

That applied to the concerto as well, with Ibragimova fully on board with the project and projecting her own virtuosity at often daringly low volume. The opening Andantino began very quietly indeed and even the central, speedy Scherzo: Vivacissimo was working to hairline tolerances in terms of balance between soloist and ensemble. The concerto may not have had the narrative of the other works on the programme, but it lacked nothing in drama. The lyricism that reappears in the final movement was combined with a powerful edge, honed like tempered steel.

As former chief conductor Robin Ticciati steered the SCO into spheres of music it had previously not visited, as well as recalibrating more familiar repertoire, so too, in his own inimitable style, has Maxim Emelyanychev. He may, however, be bringing a more radical, and – crucially – more intimate approach to that aspect of his job.

Keith Bruce

Concert repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and City Halls, Glasgow tonight and tomorrow.
Picture: Alina Ibragimova

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

With the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union giving its annual performance of the work in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Sunday, re-scheduled from the early days of the New Year because of pandemic restrictions then, there has been ample opportunity for Central-belt Scots to hear Handel’s oratorio masterpiece, Messiah, in the run-up to Easter.

Unarguably, the work sits better at that point in the Christian calendar in terms of its libretto – the Nativity actually gets pretty short shrift after the “Pastoral Symphony” in the middle of Part 1 – but Messiah is much less a narrative of the life of Christ than an expression of some of the knottier philosophical issues presented by the faith, as outlined in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It is not to diminish the achievement of Charles Jennens, who supplied the composer with the clever text, to note that Handel himself was as well-versed in these arguments and highly Biblically literate. That is why he was able to set the words so successfully.

Led by Stephanie Gonley, who contributed some fine solo playing of her own, this edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra included some old friends, some early music specialists, and the keyboard talents of both the Edinburgh Choral’s director Michael Bawtree and the newly-announced director of the RSNO Chorus Stephen Doughty, alongside the harpsichord of SCO Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

If the bouncy excitability of Emelyanychev seemed a little over-exuberant in the instrumental opening bars, there were some inspired touches in the conductor’s interpretation later on, notably the bagpipe-like drone with which he began the aforementioned “Pifa”, which here became more a stately dance. His ornamentation at the keyboard was a sparkling foil to the extra grace-notes the soloists added to their recitatives and arias.

They were a stellar quartet too. Tenor Hugo Hymas brought something of the personality of Bach’s Evangelist to his role, while Matthew Brook was as terrifically dramatic as only he can be on some of the most theatrical music of the work – and, of course, Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together? seemed especially pertinent.

But there was magnificent animation in the performance of counter-tenor Xavier Sabata as well, with a memorably huge “Shame” in the middle of He Was Despised, and Anna Dennis revelled in some of Emelyanychev’s brisk tempos. The soprano was in spectacular voice, very possibly the best I have heard her, with Part 1’s Rejoice Greatly as precise as it was speedy and Part 3’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth devastating.

Chorus director Gregory Batsleer has the SCO singers – at 50 voices a large chamber choir as much as a chorus – drilled to perfection. There were some startling moments from them throughout the performance, including a very gentle start to All We Like Sheep, a wonderfully crisp “Let us break” from the nine tenors after Brook’s furious “Nations”, and the pinpoint dynamics and pitch of the unaccompanied Since by man came death in the final section.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasow

It’s not often you hear delirious cheering, verging on rock hysteria, at a classical music gig, but the noticeably young audience section, whose unrestrained appreciation crescendoed over the course of this all-Mozart SCO programme, certainly wasn’t backward in liberating its Friday night fizz.

This was heartwarming to say the least, as concert-going inches back to normal. Nor was it difficult to identify the source of their adulation, Maxim Emelyanychev, the orchestra’s fresh-faced Russian principal conductor, whose rousing frontman presence – punchy, unpredictable and a whisker short of anarchic – is to the SCO what Freddie Mercury was to Queen. 

To describe the SCO, though, as a Mozart tribute band on this occasion, is perhaps taking the pop analogy too far. Yet these were performances through which Emelyanychev seemed intent on marrying the impression of Mozart the disorderly showman of his day with Mozart the musical museum piece. 

Full credit to the Russian, these performances really brought the music to life, not simply as if the ink was still wet on the score, but that some bits had even been left unfinished, to be made up on the spur of the moment.

That was literally the case in Emelyanychev’s solo number as performer/director in the Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor. He’d hardly sat down at the Steinway when he cut the applause dead, defying expectations with a short improvised fantasy, allegedly based on a harmonic sequence from Mozart’s Requiem (the Lacrimosa), delivered with a sort of pre-Lisztian demonism that eventually hung endlessly on a dominant chord in preparation for the concerto proper.

It was daring and electrifying. With the SCO tuning vigorously into this spirit of deflection and danger, grittily and spontaneously, the concerto’s familiarity was jeopardised in the best of senses. Yes, the purity of Mozart’s content and construction was judiciously maintained, its motivic interplay and seamless melodic invention bound by integrity, but this was also an object lesson in dynamic, on-the-spot music-making, which can only happen when an orchestra has such absolute belief in the man at the front. 

They won over their audience with interactive spontaneity and unheralded surprise. There was no second-guessing Emelyanychev’s chosen course, which sometimes involved walking away from the piano and into the midst of his colleagues. His own performance was fiery and fickle, just occasionally, in softer passages, failing to communicate the fullest of tone. And why make such an issue of retuning the orchestra between movements? It seemed more like an act than a necessity.

The concerto sat between the curiosity that is Mozart’s Serenade No 6, “Serenata notturna”, introduced by Emelyanychev who then disappeared to let this unconventionally orchestrated delight take care of itself, and the late Symphony No 39 in E flat.

The Serenade played its part as a showpiece opener, the central “concertante” group (a string quartet with double bass instead of cello) encased within the exuberance of the wider band. Louise Goodwin’s timpani, placed centre front stage, unleashed a solo break to rival Buddy Rich. 

Emelyanychev was back in harness to direct the closing symphony, predictably unpredictable, set ablaze by a freedom that invited snatches of improvised ornamentation from the woodwind and febrile gutsiness from the strings, but nearly burned to the ground when Mozart’s mischievous false finish, riskily exaggerated, set off premature applause and subsequent laughter. 

Was that the intended response? I wouldn’t put it past the SCO’s charismatic enfant terrible.

Ken Walton 

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

Sold, on the undeniable attraction of its star soloist, as “A French Adventure with Steven Isserlis”, that title really told only half the story of this concert.

After the interval we were once again in the repertoire territory the Scottish Chamber Orchestra explored so successfully in its online films concerts during lockdown, the intimacy of which Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev seems to relish projecting in live performance.

Just ten principals are required for Jean Francaix’s Dixtour, but these are not just any front-desk players, they are SCO front-desk players, not excepting guest leader Sophie Wedell who was outstanding all evening. Symphonic in structure, the work is one of those large chamber pieces that is vital, in all senses, and irresistibly vivacious. At its end principal flute Andre Cebrian, who also put in a full and colourful shift, swapped to the piccolo for the last bars, seeming to continue a conversation that had been started by Debussy at the concert’s opening.

No matter how often you may have heard the beginning of Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Cebrian’s flawless playing made you bring fresh ears to the job. So too did Emelyanychev’s dynamic control of the strings and winds, pointing up all the smallest details as well as the swells of sound.

It was a skill he demonstrated again in the far-from-French Divertimento for String Orchestra by Bela Bartok that concluded the evening. The SCO plays more propulsively for Emelyanychev that anyone else and he was hugely alive to the work’s folk rhythms while Wedell added a beautifully-shaped solo to the last movement.

There must also be few regular concert goers who have never heard Isserlis play the Cello Concert No 1 by Saint-Saens, a work he has proselytised for persistently. Yet this too sounded burnished and sparkling with the chamber orchestra. With Cebrian taking the lead in the winds’ work with the soloist, there was a real partnership in the performance, with a startling neo-baroque style in the string playing. Isserlis never seemed to be holding back at all, and yet the balance with the smaller forces was just about perfect.

He assuredly thought so too, as the generous encore he chose to play featured the whole orchestra in Faure’s Elegie.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

A printed programme, an interval, and the reopening of the City Halls bar to service the latter: a sure sign, at Friday’s SCO concert, that things are edging towards normal.

As for the concert itself, it was vintage Maxim Emelyanychev, even if that seems a slightly odd adjective to use for an SCO chief conductor still in his early 30s. But vintage it was, in the sense that the supercharged Russian whisked us through a heady mixed cocktail of Beethoven, Liszt, Sweelinck and Mendelssohn complete with the unexpected twists that are his permanent trademark.

There was one ingredient that didn’t quite come off. For the second half he prefaced Mendelssohn’s pious “Reformation” Symphony with his own arrangement of the Beati pauperes (motet settings of the New Testament Beatitudes) from Dutch Renaissance composer Jan Sweelinck’s Cantiones Sacrae. 

In theory, the programmatic hypothesis made intriguing sense: Sweelinck, a Catholic who likely turned to Calvinism amid the religious turmoil of the 1570s; Mendelssohn, whose symphony celebrates the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protestant declaration in the 1530 Augsburg Confession. Played by a small ensemble on period instruments – sackbuts, serpent and Emelyanychev, himself, on cornett – there was a certain novelty and quaintness in witnessing this rarified sound world as a springboard to the Mendelssohn’s heavyweight stoicism.

The problem was its presentation. It would have worked better with a smoother segue between the two works than the complete set change we witnessed, especially as the Sweelinck was only minutes long. It made its presence seem more incongruous than inclusive.

Not that it obscured the collective success of the rest of the programme. From the very first note of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, it was clear that run-of-the-mill is not a phrase this conductor adheres to. Without losing the innate Classicism at the heart of the symphony, the natural momentum that carries it inexorably forward, Emelyanychev implanted magically judged gestures, momentary surprises, that cast it in an entirely fresh light. The unanimity of the SCO’s response was crucial in achieving that.

Then two refreshing minds came together, soloist Benjamin Grosvenor joining Emelyanychev and his team for a performance of Liszt’s single-movement Piano Concerto No 1 with compelling results. Grosvenor’s approach was utterly thrilling, on the one hand assertive and rhetorical, on the other eschewing indulgence and self-absorbed showmanship of the sort that so often skews the logic of Liszt’s cohesive thematic scheme.

I’ve never heard Grosvenor – who was famously the 11-year-old runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician finals – play with such authority and ingenuity. Not quite 30 yet, a remarkable, new-found maturity has set in. 

With the quirkiness of the Sweelinck dispensed with, the closing Mendelssohn symphony brought us back to firm and fertile ground. In the wrong hands, the “Reformation”, with its robust “Ein’ feast Burg” chorale and echoing reference to the so-called Dresden Amen, can sound overly thick-set. With Emelyanychev it was anything but. Sparkle, airiness and transparency, and an SCO on top form, injected its reflective sincerity with optimistic affirmation. 

Ken Walton

A Well-Tempered Pianist

Benjamin Grosvenor talks to KEITH BRUCE about playing Liszt with the SCO

Still six months shy of his 30th birthday, Benjamin Grosvenor has had a very busy career since he was runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11. As he recalls now, with obvious fondness, “the final rounds were held in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and my first real tour was with the Scottish Ensemble, so these cities hold a lot of great memories for me.”

Having formed a rewarding partnership with the RSNO and its principal guest conductor Elim Chan, recording an award-winning album of Chopin’s Concertos in that orchestra’s home studio in Glasgow, the pianist is this year working with Edinburgh’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra as a resident artist.

At the end of April he will play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the SCO under Joana Carniero, but this week his focus is on the composer who was the subject of his most recent Decca recording, Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, with the SCO’s Principal Conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.

“Liszt wrote so much music, and there are a lot of wonderful works that don’t get so much attention,” says Grosvenor. “One example would be the second version of the Berceuse that I recorded for my recent Liszt disc, which is such an atmospheric piece.

“In the context of other romantic piano concertos, the Piano Concerto No 1 strikes one as unusual and innovative in form, with this idea – as in the B minor Sonata – of a one movement (though divided into four) work united in its content by certain themes that transform throughout.

“Liszt took things very seriously when it came to these large-form pieces, and he spent 23 years polishing this one off. As one would expect, there is piano writing of great virtuosity, but also some incredibly beautiful lyrical episodes. The climbing melody in the piano solo at the beginning of the Adagio would be worthy of Bellini for sure!

“Interestingly, what was seen as startlingly modern at the time was Liszt’s use of the triangle in this piece – in the scherzo it is there in the forefront – in a way which was (though this seems really odd to us now!) seen as ‘distasteful’, as was the idea of elevating any percussion other than the timpani. It still comes across as a most unusual bit of orchestration in a piano concerto, but a wonderful effect in the context of this impish scherzo.”

There speaks a musician who has ears for much more than the virtuoso piano part, and Grosvenor has, like Benedetti, performed with a chamber orchestra without a conductor. He’s very happy to have Emelyanychev on-board for these concerts however.

“I have enormous admiration for Maxim both as a keyboard player and a conductor, and I thought their Prom last year with Mozart symphonies was thrilling. Even with a conductor involved, working with a chamber orchestra is a much more intimate experience and you can feel a lot more connection with the orchestra than in other settings. It will be my first time with Liszt in this context so I am looking forward to that.

“I have worked as a director before, but without really physically conducting as that is not really a skill I have acquired yet with any finesse.

“In the right repertoire and with a good leader it is not entirely necessary, but one’s role is obviously still quite different, as there is a responsibility to comment on and to mold some of the orchestral playing. I think Liszt could be challenging in that context but perhaps not impossible, but I would probably have to develop a slightly more advanced ability to conduct!”

You get the impression that it is a skill that is not an immediate priority for the pianist. Although he appeared to be working fairly consistently through the recent health emergency, as a solo recitalist and in his established chamber music partnerships as well as with orchestras, Grosvenor says he was profoundly affected by the hiatus.

“Initially I took some time away from the piano, which I hadn’t done for many years. I returned to it again and explored some new repertoire, and found the break to be refreshing, though it was then difficult to work in a focussed way with no concerts to prepare for.

“The pandemic hasn’t necessarily changed my focus now that that things have somewhat normalised, but certainly over the last years it has posed many challenges. I must admit I never really got used to streaming without an audience, and certainly when it came to a piano recital (without any other musicians involved) it was a very strange experience. I am very glad to see audiences back again.

“Coming out of the first lockdown the thing I really wanted to do most of all was play chamber music, and I actually put on some chamber music concerts where I currently live in southeast London. We were some of the first concerts to take place with audiences, and it was a very fulfilling experience and also hugely interesting to see things from the promoter’s side.

“And the situation is still throwing me curved balls. Recently in Pittsburgh a positive case in the orchestra on the day of the first concert meant we had to go from Rachmaninov Second Concerto to Brahms Piano Quintet with just seven hours’ notice!”

Grosvenor may have been a precociously young signing to a major label, Decca, but being a pragmatic musician with the ability to deal with such situations, rather than a glamorous star, seems to be his chosen path.

“I have always had very varied tastes in repertoire, with no real inclination to specialise, and I still feel there is so much to explore. It can be tricky therefore to find a balance between exploring the old and the new, and while I have a great interest in contemporary music I must admit I haven’t played a great deal. As to early music, of course I play Bach, but going even earlier, there is a lot of wonderful 17th century keyboard music that I’d like to explore at some point.”

So, does he envy Liszt the superstar status he enjoyed in his lifetime?

“Not really!”

Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Thursday February 3, Glasgow’s City Halls on Friday February 4 and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday February 5.

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

Perhaps more than any other outfit, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has contrived to combine elements of the season that fell victim to the pandemic with the work it did online during the hiatus in its programming since audiences were again permitted into concert halls.

This journey back in time from John Adams via Mozart to Bach’s Brandenburg No 5 was a case in point, as well as being another illustration of the sparkling relationship that now exists between the SCO and its principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The young Russian seemed especially hyper on Friday night, even as he introduced and then absented himself from the stage for Mozart’s Gran Partita. That was perhaps not entirely to the benefit of Adams’s Shaker Loops. The composer’s breakthrough work was much better in its more delicate moments than in the opening Shaking and Trembling, which was less precision-tooled and sharp-edged than the music requires. The many discrete string sections were not as distinct as they needed to be, and of the three violin groups, it was Marcus Barcham Stevens’s thirds that seemed the crispest.

The higher the volume, it seemed, the less the ensemble cohered and it is tempting to conclude that the excitable Emelyanychev’s expansive gestures at such moments were part of the problem.

Lovers of symmetry and mathematical precision in music were in hog heaven with this programme, and as much in the Mozart as the two composers either side. With string bass Ciro Vigilante flanked by pairs of horns and quartets of single and double reeds facing one another, principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin was in the leader’s chair for a truly expert and pretty much flawless account of the work. The third movement variations were delightfully individual and the balance of the 13 players in the City Hall acoustic about perfect, which was arguably especially impressive from the four natural horns.

The Brandenburg, from half a century before, could almost seem free-form by comparison, a showcase for soloists first violin Stephanie Gonley, flautist Andre Cebrian and Emelyanychev at the harpsichord, with a four-man string continuo led by cellist Philip Higham, who had added a fine solo to the Adams.

Cebrian looked to be running away with the show in the first movement but his lovely fluid playing drew a virtuoso response from Emelyanychev at the keyboard before the trio settled into a beautifully-measured account of the Affettuoso slow movement. The Allegro finale was a masterful example of warm, bubbling, ensemble playing, and the icing on the cake was an encore of a short Martinu Promenade.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow 

However inspiring he is to work with, it can be an exhausting experience just watching and listening to the SCO’s Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. This concert paired him with another Tiggerish Russian in violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, whose similarly wide artistic practice embraces conducting and counter-tenor singing.

On more than one occasion on Friday evening it was less than clear who was in charge on stage. All credit to the players for seeming entirely unperturbed by the multiple waving arms, like a willow in the wind.

Journalist David Kettle supplied a very useful and comprehensive programme note to guide the listener through some very unfamiliar music, gathered under the title “Baroque Brio” – and there was plenty vivacity from both Sinkovsky and from Emelyanychev at the keyboard. Even tuning was quite theatrical, with the violinist sharing his pitch by walking around the platform and “Maestro Maxim”, as the soloist called him, finding it necessary to tweak the harpsichord from time to time.

The programme mixed early music by Leclair, Locatelli and Vivaldi with 20th century work that took inspiration from the era by Poulenc and Hungarian Ferenc Farkas. The latter’s Five Ancient Hungarian Dances, in an arrangement by Emelyanychev that called for the largest ensemble of the evening, was arguably the most interesting inclusion, but moved to the penultimate slot in the sequence it was a little lost, and immediately overshadowed by the Vivaldi concerto that followed, with its arresting opening and flamboyant cadenza for Sinkovsky at the end.

Poulenc’s Suite francaise, composed to soundtrack Bourdet’s extravagant stage version of the Dumas novel La reine Margot, is a very witty sparkling seven movements, but the eight movements of Locatelli’s Concerto Capriccioso, which apparently tells the Ariadne auf Naxos story, seemed a long row to hoe.

There is something of another Maxim, Maxim Vengerov, about Sinkovsky, who is a sensational player, but his party-piece Vivaldi solo concluded a performance of the work that was actually more spacious and less bustling that one might have expected, and all the better for it. It mirrored the Violin Concerto in D Major by Jean-Marie Leclair that had opened proceedings. Leclair, whose artistic career included dancing and virtuoso violin as well as composition, was perhaps the most apt inclusion by the concert’s multi-disciplined (but also slightly undisciplined) protagonists.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Dmitry Sinkovsky

SCO / Emelyanychev


City Halls, Glasgow
It was impossible not to pick up the eagerness with which Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launched into their first season concert in Glasgow in almost 20 months. The smiles on the players’ faces as they tuned was already indicative of their undisguised pleasure in having a live audience, as was the palpable emotion in chief executive Gavin Reid’s welcome back speech. But it was the moment Emelyanychev rushed to the podium to deliver a vicious, impatient downbeat that the power of live music made its visceral mark.
This was Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, a work that can be what you like it to be, blustery and bombastic with the central slow movement as an oasis of relative calm, or a tempered approach with the emphasis firmly on harnessing its extremes to create a more organic, though no less volcanic, survey.
Emelyanychev and his soloist, the Russian-Lithuanian Lukas Geniušas, chose the former, the brusque and challenging opening exchange a clear indication of what was to come. In many ways it was an uncomfortable ride. Emelyanychev played freely with the tempo, placing gestural rhetoric at the forefront of his stormy vision. If that felt forced at times, there was no denying the resultant unpredictability and excitability that made every precious moment an edge-of-the-seat one.
Everyone was up for it, including the equally invigorated Geniušas, and it was this singularity of purpose that won the day. The colossal opening movement was explosive, shock tactics heightening its language of extremes; the slow movement eschewing over-sentiment in favour of rich-veined lyricism; the finale resuming the struggle but with exhaustive victory firmly in sight. Geniušas proved a pugnacious match to the exuberant Emelyanychev, to which the SCO responded with matching complicity.
This interval-less concert ended with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, and a performance that, once again, shaped its own destiny. While this symphony may not have quite the same instinctive charm as Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony – which the BBC SSO had performed in the same hall 24 hours earlier – Emelyanychev played to its strengths, some of which proved to be unexpected delights. 
There was an abundance of clarity, enabling unexpected colours to emerge, such as those moments where a low-set clarinet shadowed the strings, or where Mendelssohn’s complex counterpoint danced with boyish lustre. And there was a life-giving buoyancy that ensured this programme ended on the same high with which it began.
Ken Walton

SCO’s Russian season

Led by its charismatic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra brings a Russian flavour to its new concert season, running from September to December and taking in venues across Scotland.

With three programmes conducted by the young Russian, fresh from the orchestra’s acclaimed BBC Proms performance of Mozart’s last symphonies, the concerts include Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in Emelyanychev’s season-opener, and Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky the soloist in the conductor’s October concert of the music of Leclair, Locatelli, Vivaldi, Poulenc and his own arrangement of Farkas’ Five Ancient Hungarian Dances.

The orchestra’s Russian principal double bass Nikita Naumov is featured soloist for Peter Eotvos’s Aurora in a concert under the baton of Thomas Zehetmair which also includes Mendelssohn and Haydn, and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony is conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with soloists soprano Elizabeth Atherton and bass Peter Rose.

The season also features concerts conducted by Joseph Swensen, the orchestra’s former principal bassoon Peter Whelan and Sir James MacMillan, whose programme includes the premiere of a new work, Death in a Nutshell, by Jay Capperauld. December’s concerts include the SCO debut of Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro and Nicola Benedetti playing Mozart.

With concerts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and St Andrews, the orchestra will offer socially-distanced seating for this autumn season and will ask the audience to wear masks in the auditorium. A parallel programme of online, digital performances has also been announced, featuring percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore and baritone Benjamin Appl, as well as the Scottish premiere of SCO Associate Composer Anna Clyne’s Stride.

Following on from the orchestra’s residency in Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes, the SCO has also announced a five-year commitment to the Craigmillar area of the capital, beginning at the Craigmillar Festival this weekend.

Full details of the orchestra’s concerts and outreach work are available at sco.org.uk and there is a video presenting the programme to watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FkgcIJfVoZ4

Concerts in the spring will be announced later in the year.

SCO/Emelyanychev

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

A week after it was originally scheduled, this week’s online recital from musicians of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra reunites them with the dynamic young Principal Conductor who hardly had his feet under the table before the coronavirus brought a halt to live concerts.

As more recent restrictions brought a premature end to this series, it is appropriate that it is with a sequence of party pieces. As we have already learned, if a musical party is what you are after, Maxim Emelyanychev is your man.

He is at the harpsichord for the first two works on the programme – an Adagio and Fugue by Johann Adolph Hasse and an exuberant concerto by Haydn. The first may not even be the work of the prolific but now obscure German composer, but it sets a muscular tone in the real ferocity of the playing style of Emelyanychev and his string sextet. The Haydn then underlines the sparkling sound and superb playing of the man leading from the keyboard. It looks a beautiful instrument, but this vibrant performance of 18th century music is not about the kit, but about the playing. Even the antithetical Sir Thomas Beecham would surely have been beguiled.

Not only does Emelyanychev achieve a remarkable range of expression on the harpsichord, as director there is a delightful playfulness in his precision tempo adjustments across all three movements of the concerto.

The last of these is a lively set of variations on a Balkan dance tune, and is a link to the programme’s second half, which begins with the Yiddish songs that are the basis of Max Bruch’s Kol nidrei, composed for the Jewish community of Liverpool when he was Principal Conductor of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Cellist Philip Higham describes this duo rhapsody on two themes, with Emelyanychev on piano, as a prayer and a blessing, which is not only musically resonant but also makes clear, without overstatement, the significance of the work’s inclusion during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day.

It was composed in 1880, the same year as Giovanni Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, an explosive concluding showcase for bassist Nikita Naumov and violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, with Emelyanychev again at the piano. It is telling that both string players have the work from memory for this is a party piece par excellence, particularly for the double bass, with virtuoso passages beyond its usual range, above the bridge end of the fingerboard.

Available via the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook until February 28.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev / Higham

Perth Concert Hall

Never underestimate the individual virtuosity of orchestral musicians who sit more anonymously, week after week, amid the wider ranks of their respective bands. Here was a typical illustration: SCO principal cellist Philip Higham breaking ranks to feature in his orchestra’s latest digital presentation from Perth Concert Hall as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

Tchaikovsky’s balletic concert piece – it’s the closest he got to writing a full-blown cello concerto – is exquisite and fanciful, as the title suggests. But that shouldn’t imply anything lightweight or superficial. As the opening orchestral gambit of this iridescent performance under SCO principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev asserted, here also is music of infinite character and substance. 

It offered the perfect interpretational springboard for Higham, whose entrance established all the perfection, agility and poise that was to inform the ensuing variations. The nimble, airborne simplicity of the main theme, the natural zest that followed, even the sumptuous calm in Tchaikovsky’s more contemplative moments, were all effortlessly captured in a performance notable for its visual grace and instinctive musicality.

It was the centrepiece of a concert bookended by Schubert, whose music, Emelyanychev reminded us, should have been a focal theme in the originally-planned SCO season. A pairing of Schubert’s Symphony No 5 and the Entr’act No 3 from Rosamunde was telling proof as to why that was always such a good idea.

In a symphony indebted in its lyrical, spirited zeal to Mozart, Emelyanychev seemed in seventh heaven, light-footed and with delicate gestures that inspired the freshest of results from his players. There was spring-like effervescence in the opening Allegro, eliciting affectionate playfulness from the conversational woodwind. The free-flowing Andante con moto and breezy Menuetto then set the pace for a finale the went like the clappers and embraced dramatic turbulence as chilling as Mozart’s Don Giovanni. 

No such pungency in the Rosamunde excerpt, which was all about eloquence and charm. There’s a gloriously ambient ring to the empty Perth hall acoustics that was fully embraced in this performance, evident in the poetic sheen and settled composure that coloured its every moment.
Ken Walton