BBC SSO / Menezes

City Halls, Glasgow

In what is now a fairly regular occurrence among orchestras, the BBC SSO was forced to field a last-minute replacement for its advertised conductor. Out went indisposed Estonian Kristiina Poska; in came Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes for an unchanged programme of Saariaho, Ravel and Mendelssohn.

It was a concert that began well, but seemed to lose its mojo in the second half. 

First up, Menezes addressed the sonic adventurism of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a beautifully illusory response to the notion of the magic lantern – the machine that created the earliest moving cinematic images – and in particular its influence on the work of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Saariaho’s title is a direct lift of that which Bergman gave his autobiography.

It’s a work that progresses on its own terms, an overarching timelessness in which Saariaho presents her ideas patiently and confidently, with more than a touch of the surreal. Those weirdly drooping notes, the spectral floating chords, those shimmering dreamy textures compounded by words whispered by the players, all contributed to the slow-setting scene-opener. An eventual change in mood was predictable – given the presence of six horns and double timpani – coming in the form of a near cataclysmic climax rich in percussive glitter and ripened brass. 

Menezes adopted a mainly pragmatic role in sewing together the wistful, complex threads of this enchanting music, outwardly business-like and leaving the SSO to work its own magic. 

In Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, it was Russian soloist Denis Kozhukhin who took the commanding lead. Dramatic and uncompromising, his steely view of the opening movement dictated a performance that took Ravel’s expressive contrasts to their utmost extremes. There was lightning lustre and willowy calm, leisurely reflection and impatient vivacity, and a finality that brought us crashing back to earth.

Still to come was the melting lyricism of the slow movement, its unaccompanied opening theme searingly and effortlessly projected; and a finale bursting with an ebullience and effervescence aimed mercilessly at exaggerating its sardonic brevity. The SSO fed off Kozhukhin’s musical charisma with a sharpness and definition of its own.

Compared to that, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony seemed disappointingly cumbersome. Menezes showed intent in narrating the lengthy first movement discourse, but did so with slowish, stolid pacing. There was spirited uplift in the swifter second movement, despite misjudged balance that left key melodies overwhelmed by over-inflated accompaniment. The slow movement evolved with pleasing unpretentiousness, but there was little sense of a returning joie de vivre in the finale, its closing maestoso curiously projected as an overripe afterthought, which it isn’t.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. 

The programme is repeated on Sunday 14 May at 3pm in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Details at