The regular Friday night concerts of the RSNO at the Usher Hall are staples of Edinburgh’s classical music scene. There are many subscribers, and old friends greet each other in the hallways. The programming of the RSNO means we are regularly exposed to new performers and new works. Tonight, we are exposed to two new musicians. Firstly, the well known cellist Jan Vogler is unwell, and can’t perform, and he is replaced by the young rising star Andrei Ioniță from Romania; and secondly, the orchestra is conducted by the established German conductor, Karl-Heinz Steffens. The programme is more familiar, with a Britten overture and the Schumann Cello Concerto, followed by Elgar’s wonderful First Symphony. The Usher Hall is well filled: those subscriptions really do work!
The concert begins with a very early work by Britten. He wrote it in America in 1941 when he was an up-and-coming young composer, and the short work was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra. Apparently, he wasn’t very happy with the result, and it wasn’t performed until 1983 when Simon Rattle performed it with the CBSO. Listening to it tonight, it seems a perfectly pleasant work if somewhat underwhelming. There is evidence of some jazz influence, and also from the music of the US composer Copland, of whom Britten was very fond. The RSNO is in a big formation, with eight double bass players, full brass, and two harps, and they certainly seem to be in harmony with conductor Steffens, who is well known as an orchestral and opera conductor.
The concert continues with Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, played by Ioniță, who is described by The Times as “one of the most exciting cellists to have emerged for a decade”, and he is making a name for himself round the world. He certainly gives a spirited performance tonight; indeed, he is tearing off strips from his bow strings halfway through the concerto. The work itself, which Schumann composed only two years before the end of his career, is intensely melodic, and its three movements are played without interruption. Ioniță is ably backed by a reduced RSNO under Steffens’ baton, and is well received by the Usher Hall audience. They are rewarded by a lively encore of a Georgian tune played entirely in pizzicato.
After the interval, the concert continues with a large RSNO playing Elgar’s wonderful First Symphony. When he wrote the symphony, Elgar was already well established with his Enigma Variations, and his great choral work, The Dream of Gerontius. He was very excited by the opening theme of the symphony, really just a few notes, but that theme deepens and dominates the whole symphony, and returns at the end to close it triumphantly. The RSNO are in good form under Steffens, and the audience give them a warm response: it is another good Friday night out for Edinburgh’s music lovers .