How do you like your Baroque? Extreme – all gut strings and not a chin-rest in sight? Or mid-twentieth century – molto vibrato with saxophone obbligato? There is, of course, a half way house, and in last night’s packed Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, the SCO steered firmly towards it, producing several agreeable surprises along the way.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

If, as soon as you see “Water Music” on the programme, you assume Handel, then think again. Read “Hamburger Ebbe und Flut” and the North German reference gives you a clue to the composer’s true identity: Telemann. Essentially an orchestral suite after the pattern of Lully, this unfamiliar piece is a real cracker. Crisp double-dotted rhythms and energetic playing drove the dance movements forwards with verve. You could see the greybeards in the audience actually smiling at some of the lustier moments, and so we were off to an excellent start.

The SCO’s fine horn section made their only appearance of the evening as the soloists in the obscure composer Johann David Heinichen’s totally unfamiliar Concerto in F for two horns and strings. This is effectively a double concerto, and given the limited scope there would have been for melodic invention using an early-eighteenth-century hunting horn, it relies on the interplay between soloists and orchestra to sustain the listener’s interest. This was undoubtedly achieved, with much light and shade, together with polished, sonorous playing.

The first half finished with Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D minor. There were several balance issues in this performance, and in several passages, Richard Egarr was simply overwhelmed by the rest of the orchestra, even when using one hair of the bow. Perhaps going down to single desks would have enabled us to hear more of his elegant playing. There was excellent contact between the performers, above all in the Adagio, but the sheer lack of projection made this the least satisfactory part of the evening. If the piano was not necessary, it would not have been invented, and this was a perfect illustration of the need for more projection than a harpsichord produces. We stayed with Bach to open the second half, the chamber organ enriching the textures of the Sinfonia from his Cantata no. 42, “Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats”. This received careful attention to period detail of phrasing and bowing, with flowing and melodic lines that never threatened to verge on the lush or romantic.

And so from Leipzig to Venice, with Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor, RV577. In fact, it would be more accurate to say to Dresden, as this was one of the many pieces that the composer wrote as commissions for the thriving musical life of Saxony’s capital. Entirely virtuosic, with solo parts passing around the orchestra continuously, the SCO delivered a slightly staid version which could have done with more chutzpah from the strings. The winds let rip from time to time, but this is the sort of music that should fizz in the way the opening Telemann did, and the overall effect was a bit too straight-laced to carry conviction.

With Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 4, the programme ended in the splendour of Baroque fanfares and sparkling brass. Given its sequence of French dances, the piece brought us in fine style to the point where the concert had started and made for a satisfying and exhilarating conclusion. The orchestra obviously appreciated Eggar’s clear and energetic direction, as did the audience. Would the purists have been satisfied? A moot point, but there were plenty of youngsters who went out into the Edinburgh drizzle thoroughly enthused and with a better idea of what stylish playing can be, with or without gut strings and valves.