City Halls, Glasgow
For the second week running, the BBC SSO came up trumps with a conductor it instantly warmed to, and a programme that pulled in the crowds. The latter was significant on a day that saw the surprise announcement of a new UK-wide Head of Orchestras and Choirs, the current BBC Philharmonic boss Simon Webb, whose stated objectives include building audiences for all the BBC orchestras at a time when the BBC as a whole is undergoing a serious critical debate about its future.
On the basis of Thursday’s buzzing concert – a substantial complementary pairing of Shostakovich’s edgy Violin Concerto No 2 and Rachmaninov’s spine-tingling Second Symphony – you’d think the SSO had little to worry about. Under Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, both performances bore a responsiveness and virility that was instantly engaging: very different in each case, but together symptomatic of an orchestra that clearly wanted to give its best.
Added to the mix was the formidable American-born Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, whose unshakeable, coruscating presence in the Shostakovich injected fire, obstinacy, tenderness and pathos into a complex, at times harrowing, late work, which the composer fills hauntingly and fleetingly with reminiscences of his earlier music.
Such a vital concoction of responses filled this riveting performance, the gathering storm of the opening movement powered by the orchestra’s swelling presence, but also a piquancy arising from delicate interchanges between the soloist and orchestra principals, like a chattering dialogue with the piccolo, or endearingly with the flute in the central Adagio.
But it was in the finale that Vähälä found every opportunity to showcase her combative energy and stimulating musicality. Like a mischievous child, she threw truculent pronouncements at the orchestra, whose matching responses were just as incendiary and belligerent. Lintu played both fellow protagonist and artful arbiter in this electrifying trading of insults, forging a synthesis that held things together while maintained the inexorable swagger.
All was very different in the Rachmaninov, a reading by Lintu that was as sweeping as it was elemental. He made that clear in the opening minutes, a slow fashioning of strength that eventually blossomed and ceded at the broadest level, yet centred on delicious minutiae. He breathed radiant energy and sparkle into the scherzo, filled the Adagio with a timeless, but never laboured, expansiveness, and in the frenetic finale wrapped up a wholly satisfying programme with a rip-roaring send off.