The Scottish Independence vote nearing, I was particularly interested to read one author suggest that Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) fell from grace through not being sufficiently Czech during a period of nationalistic fervour. Whatever the reason, I found his 1893 Piano Quintet in D Major Op. 42 charming. I use the word with some reservation as, these days, its faint praise overtones make it a near neighbour of “harmless”. Specifically, I found that throughout its 35-minute duration in this SCO Chamber Concert, all distracting thoughts were outmanoeuvred by the work's elegance, its themes, their harmonic and contrapuntal treatment and, in this performance, the exceptional chamber music skills of those involved.

Balancing piano, violin, cello, horn and clarinet requires fine compositional skill but also sensitive performers. Clarity and balance were excellent. At no point were melodic and accompaniment roles unclear. When themes passed contrapuntally from one player to another, a natural balance was struck regardless of instrumental contrast.

Fibich, it seems to me, had quite a melodic gift and melodies were beautifully shaped here. A case in point is the second theme of the opening Allegro non tanto, which soared effortlessly. The Scherzo was delivered with infectious vigour, but there was also great variety. The movement seemed to have an ABACA form, where B and C sections offered contrast through significantly reduced tempo and activity. The former allowed Alec Frank-Gemmill's melodic phrasing and wonderful horn sound to shine through. Re-energising for a return to the A sections was driven by Aaron Shorr's fine piano playing. The closing Allegro con spirito finale, whose second theme twinkled with odd reminders of Albéniz and Granados, later featured some fine syncopated interplay between Frank-Gemmill's horn and Maximiliano Martín's clarinet.

Hearing the vigour in Janáček's 1924 sextet Mládí, it was difficult to believe he was 70 years old when he wrote it. The SCO musicians involved here certainly brought out the eponymous youth. Svend Brown's programme note pointed out that Janáček's fascination for speech rhythm can be heard in the opening phrase which mirrors “Mládí! Zlati Mládí” (“Youth! Golden Youth”). What conveyed youth to me in this performance was not simply a matter of speed but also the wiry, nimble quality brought about by excellent articulation. This was especially clear in the bassoon writing, finely delivered by Peter Whelan. There was also unmistakable mirth in the opening Allegro, highlighted in an accelerando passage followed by some dizzying pointillistic writing across the ensemble.

I detected two familiar resonances in the engaging third movement Vivace. Casting a backward glance there was a motif very much like one from the Liszt/Wagner Liebestod. More surprising was how much the opening bars foreshadowed minimalist riffs of Steve Reich. Like much of the mercurial Mládí, this soon moved on, but the effect of notes bouncing between Whelan's bassoon and William Stafford's bass clarinet was unmistakable.

In an age when “crossover” musicians were rarer than they are now, the contribution to classical repertoire of jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman was quite remarkable. Conrad Wilson's fine programme note also stressed that, were it not for the persuasive Goodman, Bartók would have avoided the inclusion of wind instruments in chamber music.

This performance of Bartók's Contrasts really was fine chamber music playing. The timing in the opening movement “Verbunkos” (“Recruiting Dance”) was by turns telepathically loose and invigoratingly rhythmic. Dynamics in the opening were really alive and Maximiliano Martín's clarinet cadenza was gripping. The central “Pihenö” (“Relaxation”) saw Aaron Shorr explore the pentatonic world of gamelan. Despite the title, I felt there was a quietly eerie element to this movement which I really enjoyed.

The closing “Sebes” (“Fast Dance”) was a real knees-up. I had noticed that violinist Henja Semmler had two violins. The reason for this is that one had two of its strings detuned. By raising the lowest string and lowering the highest, each by a semitone, the violin's open string distance of perfect fifths now contained two diminished fifths - formerly known as “diabolus in musica” (“the Devil in music”). Times have moved on and the opening, particularly as it gained momentum, reminded me more of an ironic square dance. That said, I found this the most Hungarian of the three movements. The outer sections were played with necessary abandon while the more wistful central section was tinged with introspection. Transition between sections was managed with deceptively easy freedom. Semmler's closing violin cadenza, featuring left hand pizzicato, was demonically virtuosic.

What an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

****1