RSNO / Roffman

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

When co-leader Sharon Roffman has directed a conductor-less RSNO in recent seasons, revelatory things have happened, with Beethoven her usual co-conspirator. That was once again the case in Glasgow on Saturday night, and the hall itself was one of the beneficiaries.

The acoustic of Lally’s Palais, as it was christened when the city’s then Provost drove its completion to crown Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, has always been contentious. Rarely have I heard it sound so well for what was a chamber music approach by symphony orchestra musicians – and that was despite some intrusive hearing-aid noise from an audience member in the seats upstairs.

When Steven Osborne sat down at the piano to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 it was apparent from his sotto voce beginning that he and Roffman were on the same page. That intimacy of approach took a little while to develop and it was Osborne’s beguiling playing that drove it – in the Andante second movement, the soloist as relaxed as if he was in the front room of his own home.

By the time we came to the exquisite structure of the Finale – absolutely quintessential Beethoven – the sonic clarity of this shared approach was extraordinary, and quite revelatory for the venue.

That sound-world, produced by players who were all – cellos excepted – on their feet, was replicated after the interval in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Not everyone would concur with Roffman’s introductory assessment of it as “funny”, but the Fourth is certainly “fun”, which is not a word you would think to use to describe either the symphony that preceded it or the one that followed.

In its slow movement there was the occasional moment of ragged timing, but the ensemble quickly pulled itself back into shape, and there was some particularly lovely playing from the winds in the scherzo, with fine solo work from guest principal clarinet Lewis Graham.

The fun came to a head in the Finale, taken at impressive speed and with some very demanding phrases dispatched with elegant poise.

That quality had been evident at the start of the evening as well, in David Fennessy’s Hirta Rounds. Written for 16 string players in four groups, and much more complex than it first appears, it is as haunting as it is technically demanding. Heard out of context, pinpointing its composition within the last half-century would be tricky (it was premiered in 2015) and that only adds to the work’s charm. For most of its 12 minutes, it is difficult to guess at its shape, and yet it arrives at an irresistible conclusion.

On many levels, it was an extraordinarily bold way to begin the RSNO’s new series of concerts, but that was true of the entire programme – one that demonstrated the high calibre of the musicianship in the current membership of Scotland’s national orchestra.

Keith Bruce