It must be heart-warming for a young composer, sharing the bill with Beethoven and Stravinsky, to know that the programme has been named after her piece. The clear, confident writing in Helen Grime's A Cold Spring (2009) effectively conveyed the visual contrast offered by sharp-edged, bright days at this time of year. Judicious use of harp in this imaginatively scored dectet clinched the crisp sound suggested by the title. Also featured, in the slow central movement, was the outstanding horn playing of Alec Frank-Gemmill. I found the shape-shifting sound world of this short work very engaging on a first listening and I look forward to discovering more music by this multiple-award-winning composer.

Peter Serkin © Kathy Chapman
Peter Serkin
© Kathy Chapman

Preceding this work were Oliver Knussen's Two Organa (1994). These two short, lively works employ the compositional technique of 'organum' favoured by the 12th-century Parisian 'Notre Dame School' – harmony and counterpoint based on notes four or five steps apart. That said, no-one present could possibly have perceived these works as anything other than recent. It seemed to me a feature of this convincing programme that the individuality of each composer shone through, whichever compositional means they employed in any given piece. As explained in Knussen's own programme note, the plainchant served as a core around which much more energetic figures danced. The first of the organa – using only diatonic notes – brimmed with childlike innocence. The fully chromatic follow-up was a much more tangled affair. These two very appealing openers, economically conducted by the composer, were wonderfully performed by the SCO.

Knussen returned to the stage with the evening's featured soloist, American pianist Peter Serkin, for a performance of Hindemith's Kammermusik no. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (1924), and what a performance it was! A no-nonsense beginning quickly revealed Hindemith's trademark ingredient – lively counterpoint based on motifs of such clarity and simplicity that rhythmic dictation by a keen school-pupil would be possible. Serkin's calm demeanour belies his energy. Much of this work requires great dynamism. Some of the tension in this music I felt to come from Hindemith's approach to tonality. While others around him were abandoning the system, he retained an attachment to key centres while undermining other ingredients which might make make tonal music sound old-fashioned. Somehow, the idea of harmonic gravity being threatened, rather than simply missing, seems to lend the music an edge. This was nowhere more keenly felt than in the beautifully-played slow movement, where the phrases' journeys enjoyed a magical cocktail of purpose and struggle. I couldn't help feeling that Serkin was completely at home in this all-too-infrequently heard musical language.

Jo Kirkbride's excellent programme note on Stravinsky's 1959 Movements for Piano and Orchestra highlighted the composer's claim that music is powerless to express anything other than itself – and that such a view would allow a composer to change style as radically as he did on more than one occasion. This – his first completely serial work – appealed to me greatly on first hearing. I have to confess, however, that while the orchestral writing reminded me of Stravinsky, the piano writing was much less identifiable. A contributory factor to the enjoyable orchestration was the SCO's brilliant feel for – and balance of – pointillistic textures. A much more contained work than the Hindemith, I felt that this was sensitively and precisely conveyed by Serkin and the SCO.

The closing work, Beethoven's Symphony no. 8 (1812), shared one feature with the Stravinsky: accusations of brevity at the time of composition. In Stravinsky's case this resulted in the addition of extra transitional material, between movements, to pacify the commissioner. Typically, Beethoven retorted that his symphony's quality lay in its compactness. "The little one," as he once referred to this work, is almost a symphony without a slow movement. In contrast to the explosiveness of the other movements, the Allegretto scherzando is relatively calm – but scarcely slow. In this regard, this symphony is the perfect finisher, particularly when played with the verve and unconfined joy of this excellent orchestra.

If one were prone to a flutter, it would have been a safe bet that an Edinburgh audience for a programme where 80% of the works were recent would fall short of a full house. However, as I'm sure Beethoven and Stravinsky would agree, when it comes to quality of musical communication, size isn't everything.