Like any top team, a harmonious and knowing relationship between the players produces exciting results. As the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's principal cellist, Philip Higham takes solo spots within works, but is more used to the organic accompaniment to a concerto than taking the limelight himself. He explained that being a soloist needs a different pair of ears and a willingness to take risks, but playing in front of your friends and colleagues gives the experience extra frisson. In a concert bookended by Schubert, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme was a shining centrepiece.

Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan

Tchaikovsky wrote his Variations for cello professor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen who immediately suggested some changes to the solo lines, even dropping one variation entirely in what became the accepted performing version. The original eight variation version performed here was discovered 50 years later, a joyful and virtuosic work, perhaps the cello concerto Tchaikovsky might have written. Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev guided the players with pinpoint detail on orchestral colour and balance, but all eyes were on Higham out in front, facing the conductor and players giving an utterly mesmerising performance. Playing a 1697 cello by Carlo Giuseppe Testore, this piece showcased the instrument’s exquisitely gorgeous tone from its deep lush C string to the fragile highest harmonic. Starting simply, the variations grew in complexity pausing for two spellbinding cadenzas, Higham nimbly scampering across the cello’s whole range. Barely looking at his instrument, Higham’s communication with the players was direct, especially exchanging phrases with flutes in the second Andante. Wistful passages contrasted with the vivacious, Emelyanychev stamping his foot to the Russian dance and calling out “Bravo” after the final flourish.

Philip Higham
© Ryan Buchanan

Emelyanychev explained that the 20/21 season would have included more Schubert, hence the choice to open with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, like the Tchaikovsky, inspired by Mozart. Standing on the level, Emelyanychev looked like he had just arrived with a fresh score from the 19-year-old composer under his arm that he was simply bursting to share with us from the sunny beginning onwards. His attention to detail was infectious from the percussive bounce in the double basses and cellos to the warmth of the natural horns, edging woodwind and strings forwards for their moments. What made this really exciting was the unpredictability, the players watching Emelyanychev closely as he seemed to seize on new discoveries and ideas, encouraging sections to bloom or blend. If the final of the Andante was like settling back into a deep sofa, there was a nervy edginess to prevent us from getting too comfortable. The lively Menuetto was dramatic with carefully placed accents with the bassoons passing themes across the orchestra. The final Allegro was taken at a fast lick, lively and exciting, Emelyanychev with a huge grin swaying both arms in an exuberant finish.

Finally, Schubert’s Entr’acte no. 3 from Rosamunde with a tune so good he used it twice more. Grace and charm characterised this piece with soulful clarinet work from Maximiliano Martín and Robin Williams’ oboe, the dynamic Emelyanychev drawing out romantic colours.

No mood lighting here – the presentation was simple, direct, and effective matching the programme and letting the music speak. The picture mix of soloist, individual players, sections, conductor and whole orchestra was good, and the sound quality perfect from the Stagecast team.

This performance was reviewed from the Scottish CO's video stream