RSNO / Hahn 

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 

The day after a scratch orchestra had played film music to a reportedly packed house in a concert organised by a commercial promoter, it was disappointing that the RSNO was greeted by a half-filled hall for a programme of equally attractive concert music with the bonus of a Scottish premiere from the country’s best-known living composer performed by an international star. 

That soloist was mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and the Three Scottish Songs were new orchestrations by Sir James MacMillan only previously heard in March this year, when the singer was Ian Bostridge and the orchestra the Britten Sinfonia. 

Superficially, they make an odd trio, the first two in Scots and intimate words of love and loss composed by MacMillan to sound akin to folk songs of an earlier era. The third, The Children, also sets words by William Soutar, but written in English and a harrowing evocation of the war-time loss of innocent lives, written during the Spanish Civil War. Its sound-world is entirely different, distinctly in the composer’s style, and as explicit as the text. 

There is, however, a consistently spare style to all three, Cargill beginning the first two unaccompanied and singing solo for most of the first stanza of The Children after an initial chord. The composer uses only strings and percussion, and the instrumental silences are often as eloquent as the music in his arrangements, with the focus always on the singer, at least until the cataclysmic percussive conclusion. 

Who knows how Bostridge, whose Englishness makes him a great interpreter of Noel Coward’s songs, coped with the linguistic transition inherent in the set, but it presented no difficulty to Cargill and there was in her interpretation a clear line from the personal to the universal. What links all three of William Soutar’s poems is the veracity of their emotional truth and MacMillan and the mezzo masterfully communicated that. 

The concert was to have been conducted by Maestro “Sasha” Lazarev, the orchestra’s Russian Conductor Emeritus, whose presence was impossible because of the global situation. Perhaps his absence was linked to the number of empty seats, but if so, those who stayed away missed a debut on the podium that was worth witnessing. 

Austrian conductor Patrick Hahn is still in his 20s, and already has a list of senior posts in Germany on his CV, and apparently sings cabaret songs and plays a mean jazz piano as well. Taking over the existing RSNO programme this week, the spare essence of the MacMillan was bracketed by huge orchestral stuff – three movements from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. 

A diminishing number of folk must now hear the former and see a tall ship in full sail battling the waves, thanks to its use in the BBC TV drama The Onedin Line, and that will certainly not be the case for the young conductor. That theme was presented here at the centre of a suite that started quietly but swiftly unleashed the full power of the symphony orchestra and concluded with a triple-time section to rival the Armenian composer’s other great waltz, which the touring RSNO played as an encore under conductor Peter Oundjian, and a great brass climax. 

Tchaikovsky 4 also featured in an Oundjian touring programme. Hahn took the work at his own very measured pace, a quietly deliberate way with the dramatic opening that paid dividends later. I don’t think I have heard the orchestra play quite so quietly before the first clarinet’s entry. There was a very precise ebb and flow in the pizzicato Scherzo too, and a full range of contrasts and dynamics in the Finale – and another huge finish. I’d wager that the whizz-kid from Ganz will be back. 

Keith Bruce