The 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn was seized with the urge to travel, but while today’s youthful explorers bridge gaps during their education, Mendelssohn already had a sheaf of compositions under his belt, including the Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when he was just 17.  He had just arranged and conducted the first performance of the St Matthew Passion outside Leipzig, to great acclaim in Berlin, jump-starting fresh interest in Bach’s works. If his trip to Scotland had produced music of sweeping misty historical landscape, his time in Italy inspired his Italian Symphony, the work of joyous radiant sunshine which opened the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's performance under Maxim Emelyanychev.

Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan

They took the opening Allegro at an exciting pace and a joyful swing with lush mellow strings and gracefully glinting woodwinds depicting bright Italianate primary colours, conjuring the warmth of the sun that gets into your bones. Emelyanychev’s lack of podium gave him more freedom to engage directly with his players and so upped the excitement levels as he whirled them into a sprightly development, natural horns and trumpets adding gloriously to the period sound. Phrasing and dynamics were detailed in the central movements, the processional tread of the cellos and basses being moved along steadily in the Andante with tremendous ensemble playing, allowing the music to breathe. The burnished colours of bassoon and horns in the third movement were astonishing with Emelyanychev forming hand shapes as if delicately painting the score, some lovely viola ornaments standing out. Finally, the exuberance of the Roman saltarello and Neopolitan tarantella dances was as lightning fast as it was light-footed, the contrasting dynamics scampering to a rousing finale.

When King Friedrich Wilhelm IV approached Mendelssohn for incidental music to a performance at the Potsdam palace of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the composer incorporated his Overture into a suite of 14 numbers to augment the drama, the most substantial ones performed here. With players joined by three trombones and an orphicleide, the boisterous overture fizzed with energy and donkey brays after the four evolving signature woodwind chords set the scene of enchantment. The Scherzo and Fairies’ March were packed full of pinpoint sharp detail, scurrying strings, haunting horn playing and sparkling flutes, triangle and cymbals announcing Oberon’s arrival, the fairies tripping lightly. 

SCO chorus director, Gregory Batsleer also directs the London Handel Festival, so it was no surprise that the SCO sopranos and altos were joined by two Handel Festival prize-wining sopranos Hilary Cronin and Jessica Cale for the “Ye spotted snakes” choral song. Singers and soloists were arranged antiphonally calling across the orchestra to each other which I am not sure quite worked. Cronin and Cale's bright bell-clear voices blended well with the choir although the voices were slightly overwhelmed by the players at times. The unsettling Intermezzo, with expressive cellos built momentum with cheeky bassoons suggesting the mischievous mechanicals, was followed by a haunting Nocturne, horns peacefully serenading as the four lovers slept, horns and bassoons echoing the colours from the Italian Symphony. It is always wonderful to hear probably the most famous bit of classical music in its true context; the Wedding March was splendid is all respects, the rasp of the natural brass, the rough bass of the orphicleide and thwack of hard stick timpani adding a bracing abrasiveness, Emelyanychev driving them hard. Choir and soloists were back for the Finale as the fairies bless the human couples, the work ending quietly as it had begun with those four enchanting woodwind calls.