City Halls, Glasgow
With a week of concerts featuring Nicola Benedetti playing Beethoven next month, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is on a box office roll at the moment, and the younger pianist she triumphed over in the BBC Young Musician final at the Usher Hall nearly two decades ago was attraction enough to assure another good house in Candleriggs.
Add the popularity of Benjamin Grosvenor and the fan following Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev has built to a programme of Romantic classics, and it was little wonder that the hall was well filled.
Happily, what we heard was not equally a statement of the glaringly obvious, even if it looked very familiar on paper. This was a big SCO, but a particularly-structured one, with equal numbers of first and second violins and of violas and cellos, and four double basses high at the back of the platform. The acoustic balance had been carefully considered, as was the use and positioning of the timpani, brass and winds.
The full might of all that was immediately apparent in Brahms’s Tragic Overture, the companion piece to his more familiar Academic Festival Overture, and far from as miserable as its title suggests. It may lack the catchy tunes, but it is a piece full of drama, and Emelyanychev made sure that every twist of the plot was fully exploited in his meticulous guidance of the musicians.
Grosvenor has recently demonstrated a skill in championing works that have fallen below the radar – witness his award-winning recording of the Chopin concertos with Elim Chan and the RSNO. It is certainly arguable that Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 falls into the same category – it is much less often programmed these days than it would be reasonable to expect.
On one level it is a cracking show-off piece for the soloist, who makes a terrific first entry full of virtuosic pzazz that was subsequently aped by Mendelssohn’s successors for some of the major works of the repertoire. There’s lots of that sort of thing in the work, with breakneck-speed playing required throughout. Every ornamentation was executed with precision by Grosvenor here, while his phrasing in the Andante was exquisite.
The composer integrated the piano with the orchestra in such a way that the work really is chamber music writ large, the soloist in constant conversation with the strings, while dialogue with the SCO’s excellent wind soloists was as expressive as expected. That slow movement featured beautiful ensemble playing from the lower strings, and the variation in tempo towards the end of the finale was the culmination of a superb communicative partnership between conductor and soloist.
Mendelssohn’s other innovation – interestingly, since as a conductor he disliked applause between movements – was to have the work flow without any pauses, and that set up Emelyanychev’s reading of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony perfectly, thoughtfully pre-figured by Grosvenor with a Schumann encore.
The SCO performed the composer’s 1850s revision of the work, originally composed when he was newly married to Clara ten years earlier, but the conductor maintained the earlier incarnation’s through line and flowing narrative, each movement – as indicated in German, rather the original’s Italian – emerging from its predecessor.
The result was less a compromise than obviously sensible, as was the amalgam of instruments – valved trumpets, but a mix of modern and natural horns – and the balance of ensemble playing with star solo turns; guest leader Hed Yaron Meyerson’s obligato in the Romanze was a particular nightlight. By the time we reached the Scherzo, Schumann’s influence on 20th century orchestration was undeniable.
For works that were once relatively neglected, there has been a welter of Schumann symphonies in concert and on disc in recent years. So much so that it might be thought there was little left to add, but Emelyanychev’s intelligent interpretation proved that is emphatically not the case.