RSNO / Gabel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There were some younger children in the hall, but the empty seats in prominent positions spoke of a few cancelled family outings after soloist Nicola Benedetti sent her apologies for this week’s RSNO concerts.

By some measures, this is less explicable than it may appear. The orchestra management had swiftly secured the services of charismatic Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut, much nearer in age to school fiddle students as a role model, and she was playing the Mendelssohn concerto, a more accessible work than Mark Simpson’s very fine, but demanding, new composition.

It is also probably true that the RSNO sums were based on a full-house, the ticket income allowing the luxury of the extra musicians required for the other two works on the programme.

Be all that as it may, those who attended had a fascinating evening, starting with the novelty of the orchestral interlude La nuit et l’amour by Augusta Holmes, a Paris-based composer who pioneered women’s rights in the misogynistic musical world of the late 19th century, and an associate of Liszt, Saint-Saens and Cesar Franck.

Although she was of Scots/Irish stock, the work is very French, all flutes and harps and sweeping strings, very Romantic and picturesque and an ideal precursor to the Mendelssohn. Guest French conductor Fabien Gabel, last on the podium for the RSNO a decade ago, was in his element.

Wildschut, who gave a much admired fresh reading of Bruch on her debut with the orchestra two years ago, is perfectly suited to lyrical Romantic repertoire, with a light, precise style that always found a fine balance with the orchestra without ever seeming over-assertive. That there is muscle in her playing was confirmed by her Bach encore, but firstly in a bold first movement cadenza. Gabel and she found a very collaborative reading of the slow movement, and a particularly moving way with the exchanges between soloist and the wind section in the finale.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a sumptuous treat for any lover of orchestral music, poised between Beethoven’s Pastoral and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but probably less popular than either because it is slightly bonkers. Gabel’s reading acknowledged the work’s eccentricity but preserved the glorious showcase for an orchestra that it is – and not solely a party-piece for timpani and other percussion.

The string ensemble, under first violin Sharon Roffman, was authoritative across the sections from the opening movement, and the combination of Henry Clay’s plaintive cor anglais and the answering off-stage oboe of Rachael Clegg in the slow movement sounded precisely as it should in this hall. Gabel’s pacing of the tense build up to the March to the Scaffold was similarly exemplary, and his grasp of the mental adventure play-ground of the piece thorough. As principal trumpet Chris Hart had amusingly shown in his spoken introduction to the concert, Hector Berlioz’s narrative for the symphony makes little literal sense, but Gabel and the RSNO grasped all its musical riches with style.

The programme is repeated in Glasgow this evening.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Noa Wildschut by Esther de Bruijn