This is the RSNO’s last concert before their eight-concert tour to Florida: their first tour of the USA in over 30 years. They travel with one of Scotland’s finest musicians, violinist Nicola Benedetti, who’ll be playing the Bruch and Brahms concertos with them.
Tonight, we begin with Debussy’s response to the Mallarmé poem L’après-midi d’un faune. This is impressionism at its zenith. Already, other composers (such as Satie) had discovered the heady heights of the exotic, but Debussy pushes it to the extreme here, from the haunting flute solo that permeates the work, to the lush orchestration of the climax. It is ten minutes of controlled musical ecstasy. The orchestra play it well, although the solo flute (Katherine Bryan) would benefit from a little more seductive weight, to evoke the heat of the faun’s forest.
There is no lack of weight or tone from Benedetti, however, in Bruch’s first Violin Concerto in G minor. Her playing gives real life to everything she touches, and it is no exception here: the rhapsodic passages in the preludic first movement; the hushed tones, with the deepest soulful melody, in the second; and the gypsy-like finale, which is a bravura tour-de-force for the soloist. The violinist, Joseph Joachim, described the work as one of the richest and most seductive of all violin concertos, and tonight’s performance proves him correct.
Over this and their next season, the RSNO are performing all of the Beethoven symphonies: no mean feat considering the technical and emotional challenges that this important canon of works presents. Last week, we had the third, but tonight we have the famous fifth, with its fateful opening four notes that have become famous through their many reworkings in the 20th century, in both pop and film music.
First performed in 1808 at a disastrous concert conducted by the composer, the work shocked many listeners (which is always a good sign!). Tonight’s performance is good, but not great. The speeds are accurate, but it would be better if it were more informed by period performance practice, especially in the last two movements. Nevertheless, the violas and cellos resonate well in the slow movement: variations of genius combining lyricism and martial moments.
The work ends with a grand finale that grows out of the third, everything bursts into life, and all the tension of the first movement is released: this is Beethoven at his best. A thoroughly enjoyable concert.