I’ve come to look forward to John Storgårds’ annual performances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, though we’ve had to wait that bit longer for this one because all three of last season’s planned concerts had to be cancelled due to the snowstorms of the Beast from the East.

Good things come to those who wait, though, and it’s typical of Storgårds’ approach to programming that, for this concert, he should pair two well-known composers with two who are considerably less well known. Even in the case of Beethoven, Storgårds presented the composer’s least familiar face: that of purveyor of dance music for the Viennese public. Played in a sequence, the Twelve Contredanses for orchestra made an attractive set, though I’m not sure it was wise to use natural horns for them: the instruments had to be tweaked and reassembled so much between movements that we suffered some long enforced gaps, some of which seemed about as long as the dances themselves!

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra © Marco Borggreve
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Marco Borggreve

Erwin Schulhoff’s Serenade was a lovely way to begin, though. Schulhoff was a Czech composer who trained and lived in Germany but, as a Jewish Communist, he fell foul of the Nazis and died in a Bavarian concentration camp in 1942. His music has never made the mainstream, but his 1914 Serenade is a cracker. Pastoral in character and bucolic in mood, its sunny, playful atmosphere is established from the outset with some tiptoeing pizzicati and a first movement that is driven forwards with consistent energy. The second movement has a Bohemian lilt, beautifully scored for winds and a pair of solo violins, and there are some lusciously dense string textures in the slow fourth movement. The ebullient finale plays with lots of moods, and benefited from being shaped by a conductor who clearly rates the work highly. Of all the orchestral discoveries I’ve had this season, this has been the most instantly appealing.

HK Gruber’s Busking also qualifies as one of the most memorable. Written for superstar trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, it’s a trumpet concerto that showcases a bewildering amount of different colours for the instrument, partly through use of (many!) different mutes, but also by switching between different trumpets, going from the bright conventional sounds we’re used to through to the creamy, intrinsically nostalgic tone of the flugelhorn. Hardenberger is a treat to watch as he brings it to life, from the playful squawk of the opening, played only on the mouthpiece, to the yearning chromaticism of the slow movement. Ingeniously, Gruber also writes prominent parts for a solo accordion and banjo, giving the piece the feel of a slightly seedy concerto grosso. Texturally speaking it works brilliantly, though lengthy sections of the outer movements sounded slightly lost to me, as though circling the harbour without quite finding port, and even the ending seemed rather to be plucked from thin air.

Håkan Hardenberger © Marco Borggreve
Håkan Hardenberger
© Marco Borggreve

Hardenberger was on much more familiar territory when he played Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E flat major. This must be the first work that any trumpet soloist gets to learn, but this sparkling performance showed that Hardenberger clearly hasn’t lost his love for it over the years. On the one hand he plays Haydn’s sparkling lines with a miraculous legato, but on the other he managed crisp distinction and razor-sharp articulation in the rapid runs of the outer movements, with a gleaming first movement cadenza that set the seal on a performance from a classic virtuoso. Storgårds, too, was on his most sunny form, leading a performance on modern instruments that nevertheless avoided even the slightest hint of stodge. There was an air of quiet majesty to the orchestral tuttis, and Storgårds pointed the inflections of the final rondo in a way that I found completely infectious. It was smiles all round after the final chord, from the audience and the performers.

****1