SCO/Emelyanychev/Benedetti review – MacMillan’s violin concerto discomfits and intrigues

James MacMillan’s relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra stretches back many decades, to the 1992 premiere of his enduringly popular percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and beyond to the first years of his career. Like Veni, Veni, his latest work for the SCO is a concerto, albeit one that shies away from the boldly ebullient religious references that characterised many of those early works.

In common with his other recent orchestral works, MacMillan’s Second Violin Concerto, premiered this week by one of its dedicatees Nicola Benedetti (the other being the late Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki) eschews programmatic references entirely. Instead, MacMillan’s drily descriptive programme note offered a roadmap to the externals of the music rather than an insight into the workings of the composer’s mind.

Yet for all its lack of overt programme, the concerto seems to invite interpretation. This is an at times intensely discomfiting piece, the single-movement 25-minute span a journey through a dark landscape with the soloist cast in the role of traveller across an ever-shifting orchestral terrain. MacMillan’s orchestral writing speaks of a kinship to the Soviet composers of the 20th century, the sardonic brass redolent of Shostakovich. The soaring violin line is characterised by the folk-inflected lyricism that has been a feature of much of MacMillan’s recent work. The two are by turns juxtaposed and combined, nowhere more so than in a series of short duets between the violin and orchestral soloists, beginning with double bass and culminating in an ethereal intertwining of two solo violins.

The concerto received a committed and accomplished performance from Benedetti, whose playing combines soaring lyrical sweetness with muscular confidence. It is a work as intriguing and evocative as it is approachable, even if at first hearing the shift into the light in the closing bars doesn’t quite convince.

It was certainly the highlight of the SCO’s season opening concert with principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, a programme that opened strongly with a tautly rhythmic performance of John Adams’ Chairman Dances but closed with a rather wayward account of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. There were some questionable decisions of pacing, particularly the third movement, taken at such a frantic pace the music seemed in danger of tripping over itself in its haste to reach the finale.