Written for oboist Nicholas Daniel and first performed in Birmingham in 2010, there was excitement and anticipation in Perth for James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto receiving its Scottish première.

François Leleux © Uwe Arens for Sony Classical
François Leleux
© Uwe Arens for Sony Classical

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra with soloist François Leleux gave a virtuosic performance of this thought-provoking work, conducted by Thierry Fischer. After a rhythmic beginning, set up by a pulse in the violas, bassoon and trumpet, Leleux entered, and played almost continuously throughout the three movements for over 20 minutes, as even the movement links themselves were passages for the soloist. The music was generally flowing and lyrical from the oboe, but punctuated with loud outbursts across the orchestra. Sometimes glissandi in all the strings were used, rising and falling, producing an extraordinary effect. The slow movement in the centre was an adaptation of an earlier MacMillan oboe work, in angustiis... II, which was written in response to the 9/11 atrocity in New York. The original was understandably desolate, but here the effect was warm and expressive as the oboe duetted with the clarinet and sections of the players.

The final Allegro was fiercely rhythmic and energetic from soloist and orchestra, with Matthew Hardy getting plenty to do on a large selection of timpani, and Nigel Cox throwing out robust and amusing trombone reports. This exceptional piece was made even more special by the sheer enjoyment of all the players, clearly relishing getting stuck into something new and different. Sustained applause brought François Leleux back to the platform for a moving encore of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The melancholy was spellbinding, and you could have heard a pin drop in the silence at the end.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite opened the concert: written in 1920 as a ballet and shortened to an orchestral suite in 1949, this delightful spiky arrangement of Pergolesi’s music showcased Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase, clearly anticipating The Rake’s Progress particularly in the Finale. Fischer arranged his strings conventionally, but with the five string soloists including double bass in a circle round him, as much of the piece uses this string ensemble set against the rest of the orchestra. The suite was a Russian delight with music including a Tarantella, Gavotte and a Vivo where there were pointed exchanges between trombone and bassist. The chamber orchestra gave a very lively and precise account of things.

The second half consisted of Mendelssohn’s well-known, sunny Symphony no. 4, “Italian”, the most cheerful music he had yet composed aged 24. The strings were rearranged, with the second violins switching positions with the cellos and basses, creating an antiphonal effect in the upper strings. This was a performance which simply refused to take a familiar work for granted, and it was astonishing to watch Fischer craft this piece in front of us so enthrallingly that it really was like hearing it for the first time. After a joyous first movement, there was the slow Andante, apparently inspired by a religious procession in Naples; the music was set against a steady tread in the lower strings, Fischer leaning right over each upper string section in turn, precisely indicating how the phrases were to be interpreted. It was almost as if he gently passed them a ball to play with, before taking it back and giving it to the next section of players. After a horn-filled Minuet and Trio, the final movement, full of dances including a wild Salternello was taken at what initially seemed an impossible speed, yet accuracy and phrasing were spot on.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was on especially impressive form, getting right to the heart of the music as scaled-back groups often can. The minute attention to detail throughout made this a particularly exciting evening.