United Kingdom Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Christian Reif (conductor). Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 14.12.2019. (GT)
Shostakovich – Festive Overture in A Major, Op 96
Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op 47
Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel) – Pictures from an Exhibition
When Scotland’s most celebrated musician Nicola Benedetti appears on stage a full audience is virtually guaranteed, and filling this venue is no easy task, but perhaps the Christmas period helps. It was splendid to see the chorus seats behind the Royal Scottish National Orchestra full. It made this a festive occasion.
It was splendidly appropriate that Shostakovich’s bright Festive Overture launched this packed concert. The first bars from the brass were splendidly bright and upbeat, with beautiful playing from the violins, and joyful in the best example of socialist realist music of the period. Shostakovich certainly knew how to turn out all manner of music pieces from what may seem poor material yet produce a colourful garment of richly textured melodies. The German conductor Christian Reif was successful in his conducting, and not too demonstrative.
Originally, the Bartók Second Concerto was scheduled – however for reasons unknown – Sibelius’s late romantic Violin Concerto replaced it. Nicola Benedetti is always a captivating presence on the concert platform; her beauty and charm matched by her splendid virtuosity. The musical public here enjoy a close association with her music-making – a factor reinforced by her campaigning for increased funding for music education.
In the opening Allegro moderato, Benedetti eloquently revealed the dark – almost fatalistic – nature of the music. The evocation of the murky, wintry night sky, and the tough sinewy texture set against the lively accompaniment. This orchestra has enjoyed a prolonged affinity with Sibelius’s music – particularly when Sir Alexander Gibson was the Music Director here – they recorded all the Sibelius symphonies. The orchestra splendidly captured the mysterious shade of this Nordic music. Benedetti in her extended cadenza gave a majestic and supple performance. There was marvellous playing from Luis Eisen on the bassoon and Adrian Wilson on the oboe. In the culmination of the great first movement, the electrifying playing had us on the edge of our seats.
In the Adagio di molto, there was luminous playing by the clarinet of Nicholas Carpenter and Wilson’s oboe; the tone was meditative, intense, and dark. The soloist sought brightness in tone and harmony and – despite the technical difficulty – Benedetti delivered a deeply heartfelt interpretation; ever so slowly descending in impetus before a beautiful hushed close on the strings.
In the Allegro, ma non tanto there was again – from both Benedetti and orchestra – some magnificent gutsy playing, invoking what Bramwell Tovey called ‘a polonaise for polar bears’. As the soloist mixed it with a stirring upbeat figure, lyricism emerged in the final crescendo of the finale along with magnificent colours, harmony and beauty.
It is a pity that a different version of Pictures from an Exhibition could not have been performed instead of the familiar orchestration by Ravel as other variants allow a more colourful orchestral texture emphasising Russian folk music. The 1954 version by Gorchakov has been widely performed, and there are others by several conductors including Golovanov, Leonard Slatkin, Ashkenazy, Stokowski, Toscanini, and Henry Wood, as well as, diverse ensembles including Tangerine Dream, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Vladimir Horowitz. However, this piece is always a marvellous vehicle for a top-class orchestra and for a conductor to show off their virtuosity. The opening grand theme in Promenade was finely performed, and the appearance of The Gnome with the weird nature well depicted by brass and woodwind. The Old Castle had hints of Italianate romantic nostalgia – illustrated by a stunning solo on the alto saxophone by Lewis Banks – all transformed by the Tuileries with its playful seesaw figures and semiquavers evoking children at play and delightfully recreated by the bubbling woodwind and strings. This sequence was quickly replaced by Cattle with the oxen hauling the cart and its great crescendo and diminuendo slowly dying away. Once more a complete switch to the Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells – a bizarre scherzo depicted by vivid chattering from the woodwind backed by the stirring strings. The depiction of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle invoked imitations of speech by angular and repeated notes marvellously reproduced by the orchestra. The scene of The Market Place at Limoges with its picture of haggling women amusingly coloured by clarinet, oboe and flute, was quickly interrupted by the Catacombs of Paris. Melancholy strings and macabre skulls gloomily evoked by multicoloured playing by those strings and the woodwind led to The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a fairy-tale depiction of a hut standing on legs, or the Russian fairy-tale character of Baba Yaga, before The Great Gate of Kiev brought Pictures from an Exhibition to a close with its monumental grandeur featuring some glorious brass playing,
This was well conducted by Reif, drawing all the best from the superb orchestra, who so often play superbly in Russian Romantic repertoire. Hopefully, the conductor will be making a return to Scotland in the near future as he seems a fine prospect.