When venues were closed, Perth Concert Hall became a top notch digital broadcast studio for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra which produced a series of free online performances. This concert reunited the players and an actual Perth audience for the first time since spring 2020 with Nicola Benedetti attracting a fully booked, socially-distanced house for an intriguing variety of music from Vienna.

Nicola Benedetti and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan (2020)

It was thrilling to hear a very full chamber orchestra blowing away the cobwebs with Johann Strauss II's overture to The Gypsy Baron with lively Benjamin Marquise Gilmore directing from the violin. With the operetta plot involving an exiled Austrian landowner returning to his Hungarian homeland and marrying one of the gypsies who had occupied his family’s castle, the music took us on a whirlwind tour of Hungarian melodies. Gilmore marked the contrasts carefully, sensitively balancing his players, allowing solos from the clarinet, oboe and flute to emerge. Cheeky accents and Viennese rubato peppered the waltz, bright on top but with darker colouring, while a Hungarian dance was led by the six very bouncy cellos.

A 17 year-old Mozart, court concertmaster in Salzburg, wrote his Violin Concerto no. 1 in B flat major to entertain Prince Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. It is a sunny, high-spirited work showcasing his compositional brilliance. It was fascinating to watch Nicola Benedetti taking a collegiate approach, playing along with the first violins in the tuttis at the start of each of the three movements before picking up the solo part. Gilmore directed with a light touch giving Benedetti a luminous canvas to explore the music. Although the cadenzas in the outer movements were splendid, it was in the slow movement that Benedetti got to the heart of the piece, passionately growing enchanted notes to top an elegantly glowing accompaniment. The final movement was taken at a brisk pace with Benedetti’s flying sequences and crisp orchestral playing rounding off the work.

Although the evening was headlined ‘Benedetti plays Mozart’ the heart of this concert was an intense performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Written for string sextet only 14 years after Strauss' Gypsy Baron, it shows the remarkable change of musical style in Vienna. Given Schoenberg’s own musical journey into the twelve-tone world, it’s perhaps even more astonishing that he revised his 1917 arrangement for string orchestra in 1943, the version performed here. Benedetti took the director’s chair, guiding the string players fervently in Richard Dehmel’s tale of the man and woman on their transformative moonlit walk in the woods. I loved the slow tread of the cellos and violas conjuring the magic scene and the lush richness of the combined strings, suddenly leaning in to more troubled waters as the woman explains to the man that she is carrying someone else’s baby, with a shimmering viola solo. The music turned darker, the players full of surging anguish as solos from each section intertwined with powerful chromatic accompaniment. The strings caught the initial glimpses of happiness perfectly as the light of forgiveness and hope slowly emerged, the tension lifting as the second violins took up the softly sweeping motif in an almost Wagnerian radiance of comfort. Benedetti was clearly enjoying the player-director role, her touch transformative, creating vivid pictures in a deeply moving interpretation.

Gilmore was back in charge for a final Strauss bookend to the evening, the Tales from the Vienna Woods. Here, a different forest, full of peasants and local traditions, and a well-known waltz after a teasing introduction of lush horns and birdsong in the woodwinds. The balance was perfect, the timing fluid and exciting to producing a delightfully cheerful end to the evening.