Usher Hall, Edinburgh
The first noise of Friday night’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the RSNO and Elim Chan was not those famous four notes, but the stomp of the diminutive Principal Guest Conductor’s boot on the podium as she laid down the beat.
I imagine she may regret that, but it was an early indication of how she would serve the symphony: at pace, with a rigorous precise rhythm, and utterly magisterial control of the dynamics of the work.
The way the conductor presented the Beethoven, including a last-minute reduction in the size of the orchestra from the strength in the published programme, was the result of the musical discussion the concert was all about. It was the first in a new three-year partnership between the RSNO and Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, so ticket-buyers heard two bands for the price of one.
At the heart of the programme was the work that had given birth to the collaboration, Echo-Fragmente by clarinettist Jorg Widmann, the orchestra’s “Musician in Focus” this season. Written for celebrations of Mozart’s 250th anniversary in Freiburg, the score calls for a modern orchestra tuned to current pitch of A=440 alongside a period band playing at baroque pitch, with the virtuoso clarinet soloist (Widmann himself here as well as at the 2006 premiere) using extended multiphonic and note-bending techniques to straddle both worlds.
If that sounds demanding, it is not the half of it, with all sorts of aural adventures in the work’s fragmentary structure – and much of it a great deal less tiring to listen to than that probably sounds.
Widmann’s own playing was extraordinary, but his writing is just as original. The work began with an unlikely trio of himself, Pippa Tunnell’s harp and Dunedin guitarist Sasha Savaloni on slide mandolin, and used all sorts of interesting combinations of instruments in its 20 minutes, those three joined by Lynda Cochrane’s Celeste and Djordje Gajic’s accordion in a central unit between the RSNO players and the Dunedin on either side of the stage.
Specific moments seared themselves into the consciousness, including the soloist’s combining with four RSNO clarinets, including bass and contrabass instruments, in a resonant chorale, and his virtuosic soloing (sounding like more than one player himself0, accompanied by the low strings of the period band.
The four natural horn players of the Dunedin were required to become a big band trombone section in tone at one point, which was in marked contrast to their earlier appearance in Haydn’s Symphony No 39 in G Minor. In the Consort’s performance which opened the programme, they stood with their instruments vertical, bells upwards, as contemporary images suggest was 18th century practice. Directed by first violin Matthew Truscott, the smaller group filled the Usher Hall with beautifully textured sound, lovely string phrasing in the Andante second movement, and skipping dance beats in the Trio before the stormy Finale, which surely prefigures Beethoven.
Likewise, Chan’s attention was on every detail of the Fifth, with the dynamics of her interpretation turning on a dime. That was obvious from the first movement but rarely does the Scherzo become quite as sotto voce as the RSNO did here, the tension palpable before the explosion into the Finale.
It is often noted that the work of historically informed performance groups like the Dunedin Consort has in turn informed the way modern symphony orchestras go about playing music of previous centuries. With this new collaboration, audiences can hear exactly what that means in one evening. There are other fascinating works in the pipeline for them to present together in an exercise in mutual appreciation that is a win-win for audiences as well.
Repeated this evening (Saturday, October 29) at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Rehearsal picture by Jessica Cowley