Another season of Scottish Chamber Orchestra concerts in St Andrews began at Younger Hall last Thursday with a sparky programme of Nielsen, Prokofiev, Mozart and Beethoven. A reasonably-sized crowd turned out to witness such varied repertoire, hopping between the respective turns of the 19th and 20th century, as the ensemble began a year under guest conductors before the official commencement of young livewire Maxim Emelyanychev in September 2019, appointed as the orchestra’s Principal Conductor over the summer after his impressive outing in St Andrews back in March.
In charge of the baton in this first visit of five by the orchestra to Fife in 2018/19 was American-based Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru, who, beginning with Mozart’s stately Symphony No. 35, the ‘Haffner’, demonstrated a willingness to engage as closely with his players as possible, lowering his face and hands down to the level of his strings section eyes- a dramatic sight. Such conscientiousness made its mark on what was a crisp and pithy interpretation of the 1782 work, adapted by the composer from a commissioned serenade written for the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner, a member of a well-known family in Salzburg, Mozart’s hometown. The elegance and good-natured tone of each of the middle movements, so characteristic of his serenades, climaxed into a riveting Presto to end the opener.
Mark Simpson, the clarinettist-cum-composer and former BBC Young Musician of the Year, who had impressed at the Albert Hall this summer with his performance of Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto early on in the Proms seaon, had been billed as the headline act of this visit by the SCO. And the promise of such a noted figure did not disappoint in the performance of another Danish composer’s contribution to the instrument’s repertoire, this time Carl Nielsen’s spiky Clarinet Concerto of 1928. The work’s brewing angst, strikingly embodied by the martial snare-drums beneath manic shrieks from soloist, interrupted by serene, rolling pastoral melodies, makes for unsettling listening- both Simpson and the orchestra admirably handled this schizophony.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1, the ‘Classical’ (1916-17), followed the interval, another outing for it, back by popular demand one can assume, after the ensemble opened with it earlier this year. The work’s nickname derives from its blatant efforts to imitate composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the touchstones of the Classical era, and Prokofiev’s aims to envision what they would be writing had they been contemporaries of the Russian composer. The ersatz and sometimes gimmicky realisation produces a highly enjoyable and vivacious piece and the wind parts should be congratulated for the buzz and zip of the first movement in particular.
This thread of musical caricature persisted with the Beethoven’s First Symphony (1800) and its nods to the orchestral work of Haydn and Mozart to finish the evening. This final piece was a fitting end to a dynamic and packed programme, and, as with the other symphonies by Beethoven that the SCO have showcased in previous trips, a punchy indicator of how accomplished their playing is- get ready for the Eight Symphony next time!
The SCO’s next concert in St Andrews is on Wednesday, November 7th, with a programme including Schumann’s Cello Concerto, works by Wagner and Beethoven, as well as a world premiere of Martin Suckling’s Meditation (after Donne). Tickets for St Andrews students are £6 in the stalls and can be bought on the Byre Theatre website.