Maxim’s ‘Eroica’: SCO’s 50th anniversary season tour of Scotland gloriously opens in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Capperauld, Tchaikovsky: Kirill Gerstein (pianist), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Maxim Emelyanychev (conductor), City Halls, Glasgow, 29.9.2023. (GT)

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

Jay CapperauldThe Origin of Colour (world premiere)
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op.23, TH.55 (1875 original version)
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, Op.55 ‘Eroica’

The opening of the 50th season of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra featured two composers central to the orchestra’s programmes, and a world premiere. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven hardly make for comfortable bedfellows – I cannot remember a concert shared by music by these two composers, but in the fascinating music-making world of Maxim Emelyanychev we can expect novelty and adventure. The young Russian musician has radically changed Scottish music for the better, bringing fresh programming ideas matched by magical musical performance, and audiences are benefiting enormously.

The opening contemporary piece by Jay Capperauld ‘The Origin of Colour takes its inspiration from a short story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics series called Without Colours, which tells a surrealist tale of the creation of colour on Earth. In the beginning, the world exists in whites and greys where objects and people are shapeless entities bumping into each other in translucent static hues. […] Jay’s new work is a real showpiece for chamber orchestra and attempts to capture Calvino’s creation story in a musical journey that maps the creation of colour on Earth from the hollow, translucent landscape described by Calvino to a kaleidoscopically vibrant world which is both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.’

Capperauld’s musical invention startled as it opened on a relentlessly hypnotic beat from the percussion against swirling strings and matched by beautiful harmonies on the woodwind and with exotic bursts of colour from the brass. Across the orchestra, we heard plucking by the strings that created a strange effect of movement against the constant tapping on the percussion by Tom Hunter. There emerged jazzy-sounding syncopations from the brass and the woodwind leading to racy themes and it rose to a dramatic crescendo before suddenly being brought to a dramatic close. The work was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with generous support from the Vaughan Williams Foundation.

Before the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, we were told that the concerto was to be performed in its definitive version. This was discovered and published by the Tchaikovsky archives in Klin, Russia, in 2015, and and they gave Gerstein permission to perform and record it. Awkwardly, the audience was informed erroneously that the final 1889 version was posthumous..

This original 1859 version was not approved by Tchaikovsky’s, and it was only owing to the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow that it got its premiere in Boston. After Tchaikovsky’s pupil Sergey Taneyev gave the Moscow premiere, the composer decided to make changes, and Rubinstein came round to giving his backing to the concerto, but the composer revised it twice, finally in the 1889 version that has become popular.

The change in the original score from the 1889 version is evident in the opening of the Allegro non troppo e con maestoso in which the piano plays rolled chords presenting a less startling effect. The brass was excellent, but the keyboard playing was not so clear – there were a couple of sloppy finger movements – yet Gerstein produced a distinguished performance, evincing magnificent accompaniment and constantly exchanging glances with the musicians. The Russian/American pianist plays the piano as if it is a percussive instrument and is disinclined to bring out the soft and succinct harmonies of Tchaikovsky’s score. The conducting was often demonic as Emelyanychev constantly gestured wildly and often moved across to his string players, demanding more from them.

In the Andantino semplice, Gerstein evinced more sentiment into his keyboard playing and was superbly accompanied by the flute of André Cebrian, and Robin Williams on the oboe. The fiercely passionate emotions of the work emerged again in the final movement (Allegro con fuoco) with outstanding virtuosity from the woodwind and brass and, together with the soloist, brought this romantic warhorse to a celebratory climax. It was interesting to hear it for the first time, but I doubt if this ‘original’ version will take off, for there are so many splendours in the final version of this concerto that we know so well, and perhaps Rubinstein was right when he said he didn’t like it!

Maxim Emelyanychev

This orchestra is superb in their performances of Beethoven; their set of the complete recordings under Sir Charles Mackerras is amongst the finest available, and their performances during the anniversary of Beethoven’s birth three years ago were memorable, yet here Emelyanychev has rarely conducted the symphonies and considering his handling of Schubert and Mozart – this ‘Eroica’ performance was keenly anticipated. From the opening bars, it was clear we were not to be disappointed. He had the violins on either side of him with the four double basses facing him, which enhanced the acoustics.

Following the two opening chords in the Allegro con brio, the cellos were splendid and were marvellously supported by the glorious horns. Emelyanychev adopted a briskly moving tempo – relentlessly putting pressure on his musicians by constantly gyrating his arms and body in rhythm to the music. A striking element in his interpretation was the clarity of the ideas and in achieving a perfect balance between the wind groups and the strings. One sensed great strength and movement in the contrasts between Beethoven’s heroic ideas and the struggle of life itself, bringing this magnificent movement to a close splendidly. The Adagio was intensely moving, yet Emelyanychev never lingered over the phrases and ensured the tempo was driven ever forward, but not without expressing the luminous visionary idea in C major on the wind and by the strings magnificently bringing out all the tragedy of the lament.

Emelyanychev gave space for expression to the horns in the Scherzo and in the Trio, with virtuoso contributions from the flute of Cebrian and the oboe of Williams. This was just an interlude before the storming Finale in which the orchestra under their conductor were playing like dervishes between the bright sun-blessed folk theme of the first variation. This was accentuated by the transfiguring secondary theme on the violins before the storm of victory brought this marvellous symphony to a terrific climax.

This was a magnificent concert, and despite the contrasts between the two main works, it sets the orchestra’s Golden Jubilee season in good stead – this was part of seven opening concerts being performed across Scotland and ending on October 7.

Gregor Tassie

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