Music review: SCO, Maxim Emelyanychev and Alina Ibragimova, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Stravinsky’s Firebird was written with large-scale orchestras in mind, but that didn’t stop the SCO setting out to reveal its bright, chiselled essence, writes David Kettle

Maxim Emelyanychev PIC: Chris Christodoulou
Maxim Emelyanychev PIC: Chris Christodoulou

SCO, Maxim Emelyanychev and Alina Ibragimova, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****

It felt like a provocation, certainly a bit of a head-scratcher. Okay, The Firebird might not exactly be Mahler’s Eighth, but when he wrote it Stravinsky was certainly intending to show off his creative prowess across a hefty orchestra. Yet on this occasion, its sonic opulence and power was going to be conveyed by... the pint-sized forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

It was an audacious, eyebrow-raising way for effervescent conductor Maxim Emelyanychev to end the SCO’s current season. And this Firebird was a revelation. Maybe not as rich and lush as when played by a bigger band, but what it lacked in sheen and weight, it more than made up for with precision, clarity and light. It felt like Emelyanychev and the SCO players were stripping layers of veneer off the music to reveal its bright, chiselled essence.

Emelyanychev was surprisingly four-square in the ballet’s atmospheric opening, but soon relaxed into a flowing, fluid account, and one that shone a spotlight on details that often go unremarked. His "Infernal Dance” made more than a few listeners in the well-filled Usher Hall jump in their seats, but it snarled with a brassy sense of danger and threat, and the pealing bells of his sonorous conclusion were nimble and bright, heralding a new dawn. Indeed, it was a performance that reminded you just what a light-infused, glittering creation The Firebird actually is.

Just as bright and brilliant was Alina Ibragimova’s breathtakingly athletic account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, which – despite the work’s fearsome technical challenges – she seemed to relish just as much as the SCO players. Ibragimova was a commanding but unassuming presence, with a remarkable agility and flexibility of sound that was more than a match for Prokofiev’s restless flickering between styles, from the lyrical to the grotesque. Emelyanychev opened with a craggy, deeply felt and joyfully noisy performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, which set the concert’s tone of high drama right from its brusque opening gesture.