SCO/Emelyanychev, City Halls, Glasgow

Five stars

A 50th BIRTHDAY concert could be an excuse to revisit past glories, but that is not the Scottish Chamber Orchestra way of doing things.

Although the SCO can take pride in its journey since the first concert it gave, in the same venue, at the end of January 1974, this one was all about where it is now, under the dynamic leadership of current Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

It began with a work whose first performance he conducted on America’s west coast early in 2020, with the BBC SSO giving the Scottish premiere just weeks later. It is probably too early to judge the long-term success of UK-based Russian composer Elena Langer’s 2016 opera Figaro Gets a Divorce, but the six-movement Suite she made from the score has already found a place on the concert platform.

Requiring the largest orchestra of the evening, with Simon Smith on piano and celesta and BBC New Generation Artist Ryan Corbett on accordion, it sparkles from the start in the detail for percussion and piccolo, before taking on a Latin flavour, as much Jobim as Piazzolla, and allowing the spotlight to settle on many front-desk players over its 20 minutes.

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Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which followed, was prime Emelyanychev: the young maestro directing the orchestra with himself and his Russian contemporary Dmitry Ablogin playing fortepianos in the centre of the ensemble. Sometimes side-saddle to the keyboard, he embellished his part and revelled in the dialogue, casting over-the-shoulder glances at his fellow soloist during the third movement cadenza.

Mozart may be the central composer of the SCO’s half-century, but this was rare fare, and the encore was first cello Philip Higham playing The Swan from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals accompanied by the fortepianos, as perfect as it was unexpected.

Unusually for him, Emelyanychev conducted the second half symphony on a podium, but that was because he had the SCO play Haydn standing. The “Surprise” Symphony, No 94, is all about dynamics and if the “explosions” in the Andante managed to be exactly what the composer intended, that was because they were preceded by startlingly quiet playing. The pauses in the Finale were executed with equal precision and the thought occurred, not for the first time, that this was a performance an 18th century composer would have been over-joyed, if not gob-smacked, to hear.

The concert’s surprise came with another encore, SCO Associate Composer Jay Capperauld’s contribution to the celebrations. “Jubilee” will, I’ll wager, have a life well beyond this anniversary, as it reveals itself to be a set of variations on the Happy Birthday tune known the world over, nodding to other composers (Britten and Ellington, for example) along the way. Capperauld’s publisher may already have booked a fortnight in the Caribbean in anticipation of sales.