RSNO & BBC SSO / Edusei

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This wasn’t the first time the RSNO and BBC SSO had joined forces. Reproduced in the programme booklet for this latest collaborative tour de force was a poster dating from 1941 featuring a joint ‘orchestra of 98 performers” under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. Wednesday’s concert, forming part of this week’s conference in Glasgow of the Association of British Orchestras, raised the bar to 101 players.

It was a supreme concert, with repertoire that wasn’t even around when Boult commanded his earlier wartime alliance. Shostakovich had begun his Violin Concerto No 1 later in the 1940s, but it never saw the light of day until 1955. John Adams’ pseudo-symphonic Harmonielehre – last heard in Scotland courtesy of the LSO under Simon Rattle in the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival – dates from the 1980s. The programme opened with the UK premiere of Samy Moussa’s Elysium, originally premiered last year by the Vienna Philharmonic in Barcelona’s Gaudi-designed Sagrada Família.

It was possible to sense something of the vast aura that premiere must have had in Barcelona’s magnificent, resonant cathedral, even in the relative dryness of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, where German conductor Kevin John Edusei’s realisation of Moussa’s vision of the heavenly journey was a performance of elevating intensity.

It was also easy to understand why the original premiere coupled Elysium with a Bruckner Symphony. Edusei didn’t have that comparison to make on Wednesday, but he elicited from his massed players a shuddering, throbbing resonance that implied kinship with Bruckner’s chunky building blocks. It made for a breathtaking concert opener.

And it prepared the ground for Spanish violinist María Dueñas, who may cut a petite physical profile, but who set this densely-packed Shostakovich concerto savagely ablaze, from the gnarled potency of the opening movement and dance-fuelled swagger of the wicked Scherzo, to the sweeter sunrise moment that lifts the Passacaglia and the unrelenting irony of the finale.

If the uniqueness of the situation had already revealed a palpable excitement in the joint orchestral response – you wonder to what extent a sense of friendly competitiveness existed within – that was to erupt big time in John Adams’ mighty Harmonielehre. Like much of his music, it fuses together a minimalist chassis with a freer superstructure that is unafraid to express itself in post-Romantic terms.

Edusei’s rhythmic discipline ensured a performance that was grippingly taut, yet heightened by the sparkle and glitter of exuberant orchestral colourings. Adams wrote his three-movement work in response to a surreal dream in which an oil tanker in San Fransisco Bay suddenly upturned and shot into the sky like a rocket. Hearing it live was, indeed, like entering an unreal world, but the optimism expressed in this joyous performance said something very different to the unreal world we’ve all just been living through. 

Ken Walton

Available on BBC Sounds