The magnificent skeins of geese have been arriving for the winter in central Scotland, their V-shapes in the sky contrasting with stunning autumn colours on the trees. It is a wistful time of year as the days shorten, a perfect time to explore music inspired by nature in an imaginative programme from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, beginning in the cool Baltic before visiting Rome and finally America.

Olari Elts © Marco Borggreve
Olari Elts
© Marco Borggreve

Cantus Arcticus, a concerto for birdsong and orchestra, is one of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s most performed works. In three short movements, northerly birdsong and orchestra combine to create a living arctic landscape, beginning with two flutes circling each other like birds in the sky before being joined by the sound of real marsh birds. Rautavaara adds other instruments including a soft muted trombone, but it is when the divisi cellos arrive with their rich mellow song that the true depth and beauty of the birds calling over the bog is revealed. A lark sounded throughout the Melancholy movement, with soft violins clearing away morning mists before Swans Migrating wove patterns with the clarinet and flute as Whooper Swan calls and orchestra built to a cacophony underpinned by the return of the singing cellos. Conducting without a baton, Estonian Olari Elts’ precise, restrained approach conjured a touching austere beauty from the players.

Staying in the Baltic, the orchestra strings were joined by Ukranian-British violist Maxim Rysanov for the Scottish première of Latvian Pēteris Vasks' Viola Concerto, in four movements, written specially for the soloist. Light upper string pizzicatos over sustained single cello notes built to a pensive string background for the soloist to emerge floating phrases in a dreamy yearning expression. The standout movement was the rhythmic second, angular and exciting and an uninterrupted vigorous workout for Rysanov who responded to the considerable technical challenge, thrilling us with a showpiece cadenza full of double-stopping. The music built to a climax, but stopped short as if arriving at a cliff edge – a feature of this piece as tension was built and shattered several times over. Rysanov’s golden serene tone in the final slow movement was resourceful, brave and passionate. It was fascinating to follow Vasks’ composition for the orchestra, each individual section receiving a share of the limelight, carefully guided by Elts, breathing as one with the music.

After the Baltic north, a move to the warm Mediterranean with Respighi’s The Birds, his delightful suite for orchestra where the composer takes older themes from others and embellishes them. Beginning and ending with a musical earworm from Bernado Pasquini, the orchestra positively sparkled in Roman sunshine. Jacques de Gallot’s Dove was a very fine oboe solo with harp and fluttering violins, and Rameau’s rather fierce Hen busily pecked, scrabbled and squawked right across the orchestra. Jacob van Eyck’s Nightingale was almost reminiscent of Wagner with horns, rising over low murmuring rich cellos and basses. Finally, with cuckoos a-plenty, the celeste took us back into Pasquini’s opening rousing prelude, the smiles on the players’ faces showing how much they enjoyed the fun.

Finally, to America and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, originating as a ballet but developed into an orchestral suite of seven movements, the open chords describing wide sweeping spaces and the Shaker hymn 'Tis the gift to be simple setting the scene for the small pioneering town of the ballet. A slow atmospheric beginning spoke of open countryside giving way to the simple unison arpeggios with blistering attack from the strings. Bright woodwinds brought colour to the moderate duo before the piccolo and clarinet led the dancing with Elts keeping everything light and sprightly before the variations on Simple Gifts and bringing a calm and flowing beauty right to the delicate raindrops at the end.