RSNO / Chang

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

IT is not going too far to say that Han-Na Chang’s take on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony will be one against which to judge other performances of this crucial work by Scotland’s national orchestra. Whether it remains a favourite may, however, be a matter of personal taste.

It was certainly highly individual and impossible to listen to without complete attention, and that in itself is remarkable for such a familiar war horse of the Western classical canon. The South Korean, who has become the toast of Trondheim in Norway, where she is Artistic Leader and Chief Conductor of the symphony orchestra and opera company, conducted from memory and created a performance of Beethoven’s Third that played by her own rules. There were period band elements in there – most obviously in Paul Philbert’s smaller timpani – and a light chamber music touch to the strings in the first movement, albeit with the heft of six double basses.

Where there was muscle from the low strings, Chang asked for a featherlight touch from the violins and the balance at the start of the second movement Funeral March was quite remarkable. Instead of being dense and doomy, there was so much space in the sound. Details of the score were sharp and clear because they seemed to be floating in the ether.

If that airiness was often unlike other Eroicas, so too was Chang’s pacing. After the two opening chords, there were none of the brisk tempi we are now accustomed to hearing in the composer’s early works. Even the Scherzo was taken at a quite deliberate pace, and the entrance of the horns was comparatively muted.

But it was the Finale that seemed especially bold, finding rhythmic echoes of the funeral march but also seeming quite remarkably quiet and very slow indeed. Whether that was actually the case is almost beside the point – it was an absolutely compelling listen.

Chang’s conducting style is a mix of big gestures and surprising immobility at times, but it is clear that she gets her intentions across, and misses none of the detail. A cello soloist before her conducting career, she also gave us an Elgar Cello Concerto that was refreshingly free of cliché.

That was clearly also the intention of Bruno Delepelaire, the French first cello with the Berlin Phil, who was the soloist here. Although he had told RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi, in a pre-concert talk, that seeing the famous film of Jacqueline du Pre playing the work had made him want to learn the instrument, his approach was intense and precise and very much his own – and not at all demonstrative. Nothing was overplayed or overstated, as it often is, and another oft-heard work sounded all the fresher for it.

The same might be said of the concert opener, Rossini’s Overture to William Tell. Everyone knows it for the brass charge at the end, whether it is military cavalry or a Wild West posse that springs to mind, but Chang’s William Tell – again conducted without a score – will be remembered as much for the precision of the cello section in its opening bars.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Jessica Cowley