RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There have been several notable examples in modern times where composers have found a means of giving the old harpsichord a bold, contemporary voice, rather than viewing it as a musty museum piece suited only to the airing of early music and in small intimate settings matched with its restricted dynamics.

What Poul Ruders has done in his Concerto for Harpsichord, written two years ago for the explorative champion of the modern instrument, Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, is both daring and impressive. This, its UK premiere, was the centrepiece of an intriguing RSNO programme, framed by neoclassical Stravinsky and heart-warming Saint-Saëns and holding its head high alongside such colourful and illustrious company.

Ruders, first of all, challenges the historical purists by prescribing artificial amplification for his soloist, an effect that triumphed on several counts: mostly it gave the harpsichord sufficient volume to compete with a full symphony orchestra; but it also introduced new sound possibilities, notably a cutting synthesiser-like timbre that allowed Esfahani to conjure up spells of darkness and a weirdly resonating density in contrast to the tinkling, workaday busyness more readily associated with the instrument.

That said, and through necessity, much of this concerto fed on the seeds of tradition, its outer movements driven by a determined, underlying moto perpetuo. Esfahani responded with nimble finger precision and punchy articulation, his role a defining one in establishing the obstinate persistence that drives this work. 

But the amplification also enabled him to explore a whole new sound world, moments in the slow movement characterised by beguiling otherworldliness – think 1970s’ Hammer Horror soundtracks – and a growling exchange with lower strings in the finale that eventually erupted in more supersonic virtuosity. The RSNO, under Thomas Søndergård, responded with crystalline sparkle in a work that is as charming as it is provocative.

The other huge success of the evening was a performance of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3, the “Organ” symphony, that treated this post-Lisztian warhorse as if the ink was still wet on the score. Søndergård was meticulous in his attention to detail, every integrated melodic line given due prominence, every detail oozing character yet judiciously woven into the whole. Respecting that was organist Michael Bawtree, who found just the right colours on this digital instrument to edge over the soft orchestral cushioning of the Poco adagio, and judged his options well in administering the chordal explosions that ignite the homeward journey.

It all seemed a world away from the mischievous belligerence of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, his 1937 ballet score based on the choreographed personification of a poker game, which opened the concert. Søndergård’s approach was cool-headed, a performance variously purposed to tease with understatement and dazzle with inflated exuberance. From sensuous waltz to pompous march, and shameless parodic references to Handel, Ravel and Rossini, the RSNO revelled in its riotous irony.

Ken Walton