RSNO / Helsing

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky may have fallen in and out of love with his Fifth Symphony, but it remains a firm favourite of audiences, which would explain the good turn-out on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at the RSNO’s home venue for a short programme destined to form the core of concerts in Dundee the next day (with young musicians from the Big Noise/Sistema music education initiative sharing the platform) and in Musselburgh’s Brunton for a Sunday afternoon Mother’s Day concert.

Assistant Conductor Kellen Gray is on the podium for the latter, but this and the Caird Hall were in the hands of  the Finnish Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, Anna-Maria Helsing, who made her RSNO debut with a filmed concert during lockdown and returned at short notice to replace Tianyi Lu and direct the musicians in front of an audience for the first time.

She was not the only unfamiliar face onstage, with a number of guests on the front desks of the winds for a work that begins in the hands of the first clarinet and has a prominent role for the principal bassoon. Alongside those, the all-male flute trio made a first movement impact with the figure that punctuates the strings as they pick up the melody.

The big slow movement tune was in the safe hands of first horn Chris Gough, and although there were some rough edges in the first violins when he passed it to them, Helsing’s dynamic control of the symphony’s opening was exemplary, and every detail of the marvellous orchestration clear in this auditorium’s sparkling acoustic.

That was especially so in the rhythmically teasing opening of the third movement waltz and then in the development of that tune at the start of the fourth. This was a hugely dramatic rendition of the finale, guided by big gestures from Helsing, driven by the pulse of the basses, and with very brisk and precise last few bars.

The symphony was preceded by the Overture in C by Fanny Hensel, nee Mendelssohn, elder sibling of Felix. It is a curiosity that her married name is now preferred as an assertion of her independent identity, as it has become accepted that the gifted big sister may have had a significant hand in the early work of her precocious brother.

Whatever we are missing of her own acknowledged creative output, this sole surviving instrumental work for orchestra is no mere family salon piece, with big string writing, a vibrant palette of colour from the winds and brass and great deal for the horns to do. It deserves to be heard on the concert platform as often as the more familiar Mendelssohn overtures.

Alongside the unfamiliar, this concert also marked the Glasgow farewell for one of the stalwarts of the RSNO’s viola section, David Martin, who retires after these performances and over 30 years with the orchestra. That contribution was warmly acknowledged by colleagues and audience at its start.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Anna-Maria Helsing by Tage Rönnqvist