You could feel the crackle of anticipation in the air as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra returned to its first performance with an audience in the Queen’s Hall for 18 months. Although the masked audience was socially distanced, the players occupied more space than usual, violins and violas standing to create an intimate and informal in-the-round feel. There is always an extra frisson when principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev is in charge, his infectious energy performing Baroque music delights players and audience alike with his masterfully unpredictable approach, full of surprises. Joined for the performance by the brilliant Russian violinist, conductor and countertenor Dmitry Sinkovsky on a rare UK visit, it was clear, even during the Baroque tuning rumpus, that there was a special chemistry in the air.

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Dmitry Sinkovsky
© Marco Borggreve

Beginning a programme of Baroque and more modern neo-classical pieces, Leclair’s Violin Concerto in D major was a lively opener. The SCO strings, all on gut, peg tuning and Baroque bows played as one, urged on from the harpsichord by Emelyanychev. They breathed like singers with an intake on the initial upbeat, but there was a light expulsion on soft-entry downbeats, so the first chords of the Adagio sounded as if they had magically wafted in on a zephyr. Sinkovsky gave a powerhouse of a performance, a dynamic bundle of energy in the finger-flying Allegros but in contrast allowed a smooth mellow sound to emerge in the central Adagio. Sinkovsky conducted from a separate score, joining the first violins at times, pivoting round to us for his solos allowing Emelyanychev to take over direction, literally bouncing in his seat as the piece ended at a terrific lick. 

Poulenc’s Suite française was inspired by dance tunes from French Renaissance composer Claude Gervaise. In seven sections for winds, brass, percussion and harpsichord, the open harmonies suggested a town band. Louise Goodwin’s robust side drum announced the bold Bransle du Bourgogne, the two trumpets and three trombones marching along with the brightly coloured oboes and bassoons. A rich brass band Pavane, a plaintive oboe Complainte, dances and chorales with Emelyanychev relishing the bass notes on the harpsichord was rounded up in the pure fun of Carillon, played with flourish.

Locatelli’s Concerto Capriccioso “Il pianto D’Arianna” is a work in eight sections with the solo violin taking the part of the abandoned Ariadne on Naxos. Sinkovsky depicted Ariadne’s mercurial mood swings wonderfully, steely and soulful one moment, with solo roles from principal string players, through exquisite melancholy to blisteringly fast and furious. Tight ensemble work from the players was edged with the excitement of unpredictability as Sinkovsky’s interpretation kept everyone guessing where the music was going.

Back to the neo-classical, Hungarian Ferenc Farkas collected Five Ancient Hungarian Dances, reworked here in a new version by Emelyanychev for strings, natural horns, woodwind and percussion. Drumming welcomed Emelyanychev to the stage, sparky woodwinds with flute gloss topping an energetic Intrada. A dreamy clarinet solo from Maximiliano Martín was followed by woodwind and strings in a dance, then in a lush mix of the instrumental textures before a vigorous finish.

Lastly, a barnstorming account of Vivaldi’s Concerto “per la Solennità di San Lorenzo”, the period strings and light woodwinds joined by two natural horns. Contrasts in the Andante allowed a spot for continuo featuring Eligio Quintero’s elegant theorbo from amongst the vigorous galloping. There was passionate solo work in the Grave movement, the players interrupting with rushed unison downward scales. The last movement was a blistering showcase for Sinkovsky, ending in a fiery cadenza and lightning quick double-stops.

Emelyanychev has a final surprise to spring. Sinkovsky returned for a third bow, but with no instrument. After delivering an exhausting performance on the violin, in a magical encore, Sinkovsky sang “Dove sei amato bene” from Rodelinda, his voice a beautifully light countertenor. It was a real moment to remember.