RSNO / Meister / Dego : Beethoven 7

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The musicians of the RSNO do a nice line in practical observations in their pieces to camera introducing the music of this digital season concert. It is not so much about demystifying their work as making the audience at home aware of some of the challenges they face. So Chris Hart’s brief guide to playing a natural trumpet and Adrian Wilson’s warning of the trap Beethoven set for unwary oboe players are incidental joys of the last of the series in this troubled calendar year.

For all that the format is well-worn, there are also practical considerations behind a concert programme that runs overture/concerto/symphony, and this is a classic example of its success.

The symphony is Beethoven’s Seventh, the favourite of many, and conducted here, without a score, by Cornelius Meister in the manner of a man with very individual opinions on how it should go. If you only heard the stormy Finale, full of forceful dynamics and taken at an impressive speed, the chances are you would not guess that the first movement is bright and light, but far from as brisk as it is often played these days. And the swift segue from the first straight into the pulse of the Allegretto would not lead anyone to predict the contemplative pause Meister takes between the other movements.

Although the presence of four double basses hardly makes for a huge symphony orchestra, this is as large a band as any of us has seen recently, with the socially-distanced RSNO players filling every corner of the available space in the orchestra’s excellent rehearsal room. It has a superb acoustic, and the recorded sound is full of detail and ensemble richness, with Linn’s Phil Hobbs and the BBC’s Andrew Trinick sharing production duties.

The mature Beethoven is preceded by two distinct phases in the short life of Mozart. His final Violin Concerto, No.5, is known as “The Turkish” for the supposed ethnic influence on the last movement, so preceding it with the Overture to his (later) Turkish-set opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, makes musical sense. However,  after giving the programme that suitably energetic opening, with Hobbs at the controls, the conductor took a break.

Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego will be recording the Mozart Concertos for Chandos with the RSNO and Sir Roger Norrington, and that team performed the Fourth in February of last year. Here, however, Dego shared direction of the orchestra with leader Sharon Roffman, herself no stranger to working without a conductor, and the resulting creative balance (with Trinick on the desk) is quite magical.

The orchestra makes a full statement of its own sound before the soloist’s first entry, but it is only after appreciating the sophistication, lightness of touch, clarity and precision of Dego’s first movement cadenza that it is possible to appreciate how those qualities stand for the whole of this performance. Even better, both musicians clearly appreciate the slightly sleazy playfulness in much of the music that follows; those up-and-down chromatic phrases are rarely so teasingly phrased while appearing so elegant.

Keith Bruce