Imaginative programming can require the arrow of time to vary its course. This 40th anniversary season Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert was bookended by Dvořák's Slavonic Dances. A selection from the 1886 Op.72 set opened the evening, while a generally more energetic selection from the 1878 Op.46 set brought the evening to its boisterous close.

Rossen Gergov © Philippe Hurlin
Rossen Gergov
© Philippe Hurlin

The addition of a third trombone to the combination of two trumpets and two trombones earlier in the evening was a significant feature here. So mighty was the brass in the opening no. 1 in C, a furiant, that I needlessly wondered if the closing dance, no. 8 in G minor, also a furiant, could possibly up the ante. Perhaps the most familiar number of both sets, this bold dance unmistakably highlights the furiant's principal rhythmic characteristic - juxtaposing contrasting groups of twos and threes.

Jo Kirkbride's fine programme notes reveal that Dvořák's fee for the Op.72 set was ten times that of the earlier one. While it's folly to generalise, it seems safe to say that the slightly more mature Dvořák had, in some moments, swapped youthful dynamism for subtlety. This seems particularly true of harmony. The ambiguous and tender harmonies of Op.72 no. 4 in D flat, a dumka (Ukranian lament) were beautifully rendered. There was a lovely flexibility in the tempo – the antithesis of “slave to the rhythm”. When cued, percussion was excellent, especially the triangle, punching well above its weight.

Two scoring decisions give Haydn's 1765 Symphony no. 31 in D major, “Hornsignal” a distinctive sound. The inclusion of four horns, here placed in stereo pairs, added to their presence as a section and their sound was excellent. Secondly, although there is significant writing for the only flute, wonderfully played by Alison Mitchell, tutti sections tended to favour the pleasantly pungent oboes and bassoons, adding an interesting colour to the opening movement. By contrast, the following Adagio completely omits woodwinds, leaving horns to accompany strings. Much of the writing featured leader, Henja Semmler and cellist Nicholas Trygstad, both of whose lyricism was very affecting.

The Moderato molto - Presto finale comprises an elegant theme and fun variations. Trygstad featured again with impressive ease in his high register and Nikita Naumov in playfully athletic form on double bass. There were also captivating contributions from flute, violin, and horns, the last of which closed the movement much as they had opened the symphony, in joyously heraldic mood.

The piece which drew me to the Queen's Hall was Ligeti's 1992 Violin Concerto. The sound world is fascinating and often I found myself craning, meerkat-style, to discover which instrumental combination was producing the extraordinary sounds. The Queen's Hall suddenly felt like a meerkat colony upon the first entry of four ocarinas.

Tasmin Little © Melanie Winning
Tasmin Little
© Melanie Winning

One element is less to do with instrumental choice or combination than tuning; there are concertante roles for violin and viola, respectively tuned 69% of a semitone higher and 114% lower than normal. As random as these numbers may seem, each aligns the instruments' first strings with a different harmonic of the double bass's first string. The harmonic series being part of nature, this sound felt quite normal to me.

The work begins deceptively simply, with the soloist oscillating rapidly between a pair of notes five steps apart. What could be more natural on the violin? Within the first minute, our ears are challenged: first harmonically, then rhythmically and soon instrumentally as more musicians enter. Much of the instrumental colour is provided by imaginative percussion such as marimba and crotales. In other moments, our ears are foxed not by instrumental choice but by what an individual is asked to do. Stratospherically high horn lines, excellently played by Alec Frank-Gemmill, and frenzied, almost free jazz lines, fierily delivered by trombonist Helen Vollam, stood out.

Soloist Tasmin Little was on excellent form. Her playing in the second movement, Aria, Hoquetus, Choral: Andante con moto was impassioned. There were impressive passages of harmonics. Much of the solo work is imaginatively accompanied but two cadenza moments stood out for me. The first was a passage in the second movement, somehow in the spirit of unaccompanied Bach. The extended cadenza in the closing movement was more “concerto-like”. This was truly gripping writing, which Little delivered with spirited abandon. Although fiercely technical, it seemed the antithesis of the heroic, romantic cadenza. The emotional content felt more “on edge” than triumphant. It certainly seemed to thrill the audience, which responded with great warmth. Similar warmth was extended to the enthusiastic Rossen Gergov (replacing the SCO's indisposed Robin Ticciati at very short notice) for seemingly effortless mastery of such a complex work.