RSNO / Chan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It’s very hard to dismiss Russia from our minds at this troubling time, and particularly for music lovers to separate its rich cultural legacy from the hideous bully-boy tactics of its current warmongering leader. Especially when the RSNO’s digital programme booklet this weekend bannered prominently that evening’s Shostakovich opposite the prospect of Rachmaninov two weeks hence.

The fact is, Russians wrote some of the greatest music that exists, some of it composed under the threat of state censure. The existential dilemma was diplomatically dealt with by RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan in her carefully-worded introductory remarks on Saturday. Yes, everyone is praying for the people of Ukraine, she said, but we should also remember that oppression is a way of life for the ordinary Russian people. And Shostakovich, himself, operated under punishable Stalinist tyranny.

The harrowing misery that haunts his Cello Concerto No 2 is actually more to do with the later Brezhnev era, written for the great Mstislav Rostropovich in 1966 while the 60-year-old composer was staying in the Crimea. It even uses an Odessa street song as the basis of the central Allegretto. 

Its placement in this programme, however, was more a vehicle for the RSNO debut of popular British cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. That appeared to be the reason for the biggest Glasgow audience attendance for the orchestra since Covid struck, confirmed by those who took to their feet and cheered once it was over.

It was a cool and calculated Kanneh-Mason performance that emerged broodingly, proceeding with grim perseverance via the vivid mockery of the Allegretto to the climactic surges of the final moment and its ruminative solo cello sign-off. Kanneh-Mason and Chan worked seamlessly together, the latter giving Shostakovich’s gnawing, bitter percussion writing the hideous prominence it deserves.

In fact, it was the orchestral performance that provided the essential electricity, Kanneh-Mason’s visible reserve contradicting to some extent the full intensity and true expressive potential of the solo line. There was minimal gutsiness in his playing, some troublesome intonation in the double-stopping, but its level-headed composure won the day for his fans. A pensive improvised encore satisfied the call for more.

The feistiest playing of the evening had come beforehand, a gripping performance of Grazyna Bacewitcz’s short Divertimento, written by the Polish-born composer in the same year as the Shostakovich concerto, also under Soviet influence. From the very first note, Chan’s alert persuasiveness made its mark, the dry, dissonant energy of the music exploding into action, the RSNO strings maintaining its infectious rhythmic spirit throughout.

As Chan also promised in her opening spiel, the second half of the concert would dispel warring shadows. And so it did, with the RSNO Junior Chorus constituting a truly angelic (split treble voices) presence in Fauré’s sublime Requiem, positioned above the intimate instrumental forces. Chan elicited muted delicacy and precision, unhurried but never laboured, evoking quintessential innocence and hope. 

From the chorus came the uplifting freshness of children’s voices, from soloists Marcus Farnsworth and Katy Anna Hill a matching purity, cushioned by the plaintive wash of Fauré’s restful orchestration. The seraphic In Paradisium transported us, finally, to a better place.

Ken Walton