RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Although the launch of the RSNO’s digital season included a number of references to the elements that have been salvaged from the live programme for 2020/21 unveiled shortly before lockdown, in truth Scotland’s national orchestra had pretty much gone back to the drawing board to rethink what music was appropriate and achievable under the radically altered circumstances.

This season-opener, while meaty enough for that designation, was very different from the intended start to the season, but if the huge forces required for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were beyond the current regime, his Third was heroic enough an undertaking for a socially-distanced orchestra.

This Eroica took a while to settle into its stride, the ensemble sound a little insipid at the start, and the mix of natural trumpets with modern instruments elsewhere in the sections perhaps a slightly odd decision. Some of that unevenness returned in the Finale, but the second movement Marcia funebre was distinguished by superb string playing, perhaps actually helped by the hyper-attuned listening that players have identified as a consequence of sitting metres apart.

While all of Beethoven’s symphonies are now firmly in the repertoire of smaller orchestras, there was a sense of compromise in this performance which, under the circumstances, it is perhaps even churlish to mention. However, it was assuredly not audible earlier in the programme, which began with Haydn’s ‘The Bear’, his 82nd symphony and as sumptuous as his orchestral works come. This is multi-layered Haydn, with some of the largest forces he wrote for, and with Michael Bawtree, hot foot from an SCO gig, on harpsichord. The work is all about pacing and rhythms and Sondergard had great fun with the tempi, especially in the Allegretto Second Movement. There was very crisp chamber-orchestra playing across the board too.

The cleverest element in this swiftly-assembled programme was in following the Haydn with the Violin Concerto in A by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George. The French/Senegalese virtuoso violinist and composer was the conductor who commissioned and conducted Haydn’s Paris symphonies, including the first performance of No.82 in 1787. His own concerto, of ten years earlier, is not in the same class as far as the score for the orchestra is concerned, but, as you might expect, has some very fine, bold writing for the soloist. The soloist here was leader Maya Iwabuchi, who had also prepared the performing edition, in partnership with RSNO librarian Richard Payne, in short order. As an orchestral contribution to Black History Month it surely deserves credit beyond this fine performance.

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Keith Bruce