Heroic Playing from RSNO in Lutoslawski Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Brahms, Lutoslawski: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 13.12.2013 (SRT)

Ravel:                Valses nobles etsentimentales
Brahms:            Double Concerto
Lutoslawski:     Concerto for Orchestra


The RSNO were famously brilliant at French repertoire under their previous music director, Stéphane Denève, but I’ve mentioned a few times that they haven’t really touched much French music since his departure.  It’s refreshing, therefore, to hear that they haven’t lost any of the style that Denève taught them, and who better to draw it out of them than French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier?  Ravel’s Valses nobles had a slightly zany feel to them, the first one seeming almost to leer along, and there were plenty of opportunities for virtuoso display.  The orchestral sound was supple and the rhythms were spry and flexible,with the winds in particular having a pleasingly Gallic lack of precision.

Nicola Benedetti sells out the Usher Hall pretty much every time she comes “home” to Scotland.  It’s interesting to hear her play the Brahms Double Concerto with Leonard Elschenbroich, who is also her partner off the stage.  But if I thought this would bring extra chemistry between them as soloists then I was disappointed.  Both played perfectly capably, of course.  Elschenbroich’s cello retained a dark hue throughout and there was a songful quality in spite of that, but he had a tendency to slip into the background, as if he had to keep reminding himself that he was an equal partner.  Benedetti didn’t really come into her own until the end of the first movement where she takes up Brahms’ second subject and really makes it soar.  All in all, though, it seemed a little too much like a concerto for two separate instruments rather than an integrated double concerto, though.  Tellingly, the best moments for the two soloists were the unison ones, most obviously the lovely chocolaty sound that opens the Andante, but elsewhere things didn’t take off in the way I had hoped for.

Tortelier was fairly severe in the opening movement but relaxed more with each movement, even managing a little humour in the finale.  Perhaps he was saving himself for what turned out to be a blistering performance of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.Tortelier has form in this work (he has conducted it with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos) and you could tell from the authoritative way he conducted the opening, with an imposing sense of drama that pinned me to the back of my seat.  Impressively, his reading gathered in intensity, culminating in an account of the closing Passacaglia that generated tension not just through the repeated ground bass but also through a sense that the rest of the orchestra seemed to be straining to get away from it.  His control of the first two movements, moving from bottom to top of the orchestra and then back down again, was most impressive, but the heroes were the players themselves who generated astonishingly vivid levels of colour, be it in the nocturnal string busyness of the second movement, the fresh wind sounds of the Corale or the searing brass chorale sounds that always had a slight edge of menace to them.  Not only was this the work I enjoyed most tonight, it was also the one that drew the biggest ovation from the audience.  That’s a measure of how great was the performers’ achievement.

Simon Thompson

Leave a Comment