And so it begins! Every orchestra on the planet (surely!) will be commemorating Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020, but for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra the celebrations are beginning early. This concert sees the start of their series playing all the Beethoven symphonies in the 2019-20 season, all with trusted regular collaborators, including Andrew Manze, Emmanuel Krivine and their new Principal Conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.

Kevin John Edusei © Marco Borggreve
Kevin John Edusei
© Marco Borggreve

However, this first concert faced early danger when Krivine had to withdraw at short notice. That’s a shame, because he has such a brilliant pedigree in Beethoven, as he has demonstrated with the SCO in the past, as well as with his superb recorded cycle with La Chambre Philharmonique. We’ll have to take comfort from the fact that he’s coming back for Nos. 8 & 9 in May.

So, making his debut with the orchestra, in stepped Kevin John Edusei as his replacement. Happily, he did a great job. There was nothing about his interpretation of No. 1 to scare the horses, and most of his tempo and phrasing choices were pretty orthodox; but there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly in Beethoven’s most classical symphony, which was allowed to unfold in its own way without much interference. Edusei was unafraid to make the introduction a genuine Adagio, for example, and if he took the finale at a fair lick then that was as natural as it was noticeable. Most strikingly, he played the third movement like a quickfire adventure. Here, more than in many performances, you could hear the sense that this was a Scherzo avant la lettre and not a Menuetto at all, bristling with energy and clearly impossible to dance to.

Equally happily, the symphony was beautifully played. The orchestra used natural brass and timpani, but modern strings playing with vibrato, a touch that gave the sound a hint of luxury while also remaining lithe and interesting. As usual with this band, you can pick up all the textures of their Beethoven, listening as though from inside, and the finale, in particular, carried a real sense of the musicians listening to one another.

Edusei’s Eroica was a little more interventionist, but not in a bad way. He took the first movement noticeably quickly, for example, but this carried its own excitement and, for musicians like this, that carries no terrors. The silky, sinuous cellos of the first movement were answered by silvery violins and bright, clear winds: I even noticed the clarinets playing with their bells in the air at one point. Edusei generated a real head of steam during the first movement’s development, culminating in those crashing discords, and then dissipating beautifully with the flowing oboe theme that dispels the clouds.

The strings of the funeral march played without vibrato, the contrast with previously making them sound even more stark and emaciated than you’d expect; but they then conjured up sound of gossamer lightness for the chattering opening of the Scherzo, exciting throughout, even if the natural horns of the Trio sounded slightly squashed. The finale proceeded with a lovely sense of logic, using the string quartet arrangement for the third variation, after which the theme emerged like the sun from behind a cloud; and if the final dash felt a little congested then it came after a warmly magisterial final variation that set the seal on a beautifully considered reading of the symphony.

Andrew Manze conducts symphonies 2, 4 and 5 next month. I’ll be there, so watch this space!

****1