The Scottish Chamber Orchestra have been very unlucky with cancellations this season, most damagingly from their outgoing Principal Conductor himself, Robin Ticciati. This is the second concert this season where both Ticciati and a high profile soloist have had to cancel and, indeed, it has developed into a tricky pattern for Ticciati, in particular. The conductor has suffered from a bad back for the last couple of years, and his cancellations have meant that the realisation of many of his artistic plans (their past focus on Brahms, this year’s focus on Dvořák) have been left to other people instead. His final season concert is next week, and he fully hopes to be back on form by then.

Maxim Emelyanychev © Emil Matveev
Maxim Emelyanychev
© Emil Matveev

Sometimes, however, cancellations bring unexpected gems, and tonight we got two. The most explosive and exciting was young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. His background includes working with Teodor Currentzis in the Perm Opera House, and that tells you a lot about what you can expect from him.

He’s a dynamo on the podium; even, perhaps, an iconoclast in his approach to Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, massaging the sound in the air (without a baton) and sometimes even thrashing it, as in the tumultuous climax of the second movement. He’s no mere show pony, though: in fact, he produced the most brilliantly exciting account of the symphony that I think I’ve heard in a concert hall. Part of that was due to his speeds, with a racing account of the first movement’s main allegro and a by-the-fingernails zip through the finale, during which you could see the players’ concentration written all over the faces. That adrenaline rush created the forum for some hair-raising cross-rhythms and percussive clashes, and the orchestra responded to him in kind with braying brass, surging string rhythms and catastrophically fiery climaxes. Yes: there were occasional losses of clarity or articulation, but they were only ever temporary, and I was prepared to live with them for the sake of the white knuckle ride he was taking us on.

There was much more to the reading than just a speed show, though, because the slow movement was as mellifluous and honeyed as the first and last were jagged, and the soaring central Ländler theme of the Scherzo unfurled with magisterial brilliance, as though it had always been going on and Emelyanychev was merely drawing back the curtain to reveal it. I mentioned that the musicians’ concentration was written all over the faces in the performance: during the ovations they were all broad grins, which (for the second week in a row) tells its own story.

I’ve come across violinist Josef Špaček before when he played the Mendelssohn concerto with the Czech Philharmonic, the orchestra of which he used to be the concertmaster. He’s a phenomenally impressive performer, and it was wonderful hearing him in Dvořák – music that is (literally) native to him. There is concentration and confidence to his stage presence, but also a very beautiful dominant legato which came out beautifully in the concerto’s honeyed second theme, but also, even, in the opening tutti, making it sound much more like poetry than a mere folksy flourish. The orchestra met him with a warm, welcoming blanket of sound, including a gorgeous set of horns at the end of the Adagio, and there followed a final rondo that was lighter than air. Its playful, boyish dance, a bit like the players themselves, seemed to be wearing a smile on its face: it certainly brought one to mine.

Big smiles all round, then, in an evening that was as surprising as it was triumphant. Špaček confirmed his greatness, and Emelyanychev announced his in a thrilling debut. I wonder if he’s free to take on a Principal Conductorship anywhere?

*****