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A great Britten made me hold my breath

RSNO

SUPERB: Thomas Sondergard conducted a performance that revealed pain, conscience and beauty in a concerto which is woefully underplayed.
SUPERB: Thomas Sondergard conducted a performance that revealed pain, conscience and beauty in a concerto which is woefully underplayed.

RSNO

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Michael Tumelty

FROM the day and hour that I first heard Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, when she looked about 12, though must have been a bit older, I thought there was greatness in her. There was a purity, naturalness. and honesty to her playing, devoid of pretentiousness, that was wholly disarming and which let the light and the truth of the music shine through the ambience of the environment in which she was playing. It was like being bathed in a luminous glow, and nothing stood in the way of it.

On Saturday night in Glasgow, Frang, now a mature young woman and acclaimed international artist, though thankfully still honest and pure in her music, did it all over again in a transcendent performance of Britten's Violin Concerto with the RSNO and the endlessly-perceptive conductor Thomas Sondergard, a performance which revealed all the pain, conscience and beauty in this great concerto, which is woefully underplayed. In the closing pages, where, for me, the music reaches a dimension of spirituality, my breathing went on hold, my heart swelled, and I was emotionally devastated and uplifted, both at the same time.

Having spun this wondrous web of stillness and depth, Frang then did something shocking and mindless: she played an encore, totally puncturing and belittling both what she had achieved and the state of rapture she had conjured. She announced it. I had no idea what it was and I didn't catch it. But you don't play an encore after Britten's Violin Concerto: it's unfollowable. Do not pander to the demand for thrills. That's just trite.

Frang's Britten and the beautiful New World Symphony from the RSNO and Sondergard get the stars.

Mieko Kanno/Garth Knox

RCS, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

ALAS, due to other commitments, I had only the merest sampling of the fare on offer at this year's RCS festival of new student composition, Plug, in a concert on Friday that featured the awesome Paris-based viola player Garth Knox (ex-Ensemble Intercontemporain and Arditti Quartet) and the extremely feisty Japanese virtuoso violinist Mieko Kanno, now head of strings at the RCS.

But I also had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some of the prime composers in this thriving community, not least the unique Kevan O'Reilly, a composer from the east end of Glasgow, not a man to be messed with, and a composer who has grown significantly, to judge from his breathtaking Worst Of Friends, a perpetual motion study for violin, viola and viciously-stamping feet. On top of the buzzing, bustling and muscling torrent of sound from Kanno and Knox, the two players had to punctuate that flow of sound with the indelicate noise of stamped feet. When they were going to do it was unpredictable, asymmetrical in its occurrence, and thus incredibly exciting.

Aran Browning's Urban Amber, for violin and piano, was described as a kind of nocturnal cityscape, though I heard a more personal note in it: one sleeping, and one restless, with that sort of "Lie still, for God's sake", feel about it; and that kind of interpersonal element also characterised Henry McPherson's Kindred, where violin and viola are siblings, with the violin picking up ideas from its big brother, while the viola is determined to sing its own song.

Euan Ferguson's Sonata for viola and piano had good ideas, but was over- structured and far too long: less is always more.

SCO

City Hall, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

IT'S a funny game, this music business, as I have observed before. Why is it that some concerts, which should leave you uplifted, fulfilled, exhilarated and satisfied, actually raise questions? It's happened to this listener before, and it happened again, unexpectedly, on Friday night at a wonderful, and I choose that word carefully, SCO concert of Mozart and Strauss which highlighted some of the orchestra's great principals from the wind section and brought them into the limelight at front of stage.

This is a question for readers and listeners: why does the music of Mozart and Richard Strauss form such a delectable combination? And it doesn't matter what particular period the pieces come from: after all, principal horn Alec Frank-Gemill blew our socks off with Strauss's First Horn Concerto, written when Strauss was a teenager, while the principal clarinet and bassoon team of Maximiliano Martin and Peter Whelan did exactly the same with their stunning playing in the Duet Concertino, which is a very late work from a very old man.

Meanwhile, the personable young German conductor Clemens Schuldt extracted an early-ish Mozart symphony from a Serenade and heaved it stylishly into the mix before powering through the (quite) late Linz Symphony with the SCO pelting its way in top form through everything in sight.

It could have been messy: in fact it was a sublime demonstration of SCO corporate strength and the supreme expertise of its principals. But shining through the whole thing was this magical marriage of Mozart and Strauss. Never have I experienced the sum of the parts with such emotional and intellectual force. Why? What is it with these two?

BBC SSO/Volkov

City Hall, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

IN the 11 years since he was appointed principal conductor of the BBC SSO, Ilan Volkov has built for himself a massive reputation through his ceaseless experimentation in repertoire and boundaries. Still with a strong relationship to the SSO, he has also acquired another reputation: utter reliability. If you have Volkov coming in, you are going to have a good show on your hands.

And so it was on Thursday, when the scheduled SSO conductor, Richard Farnes, had to withdraw for personal reasons. Volkov was available, so they hauled him in. Revealingly, he took on the programme of Janacek, Dvorak and Bartok as planned: he knew the lot; no compromises were necessary. What ensued was a cracking show, with its highlight Volkov's opener in Vaclav Talich's arrangement of the Suite from Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, where the Israeli conductor consistently underlined the blazing originality of this extraordinary composer, while the SSO mirrored that originality in their fresh and concentrated playing.

Volkov is also a superb accompanist. I could name you a raft of performers who relax when they learn he is to be their conductor, and I suspect young American cellist Joshua Roman, a fantastic, unforced technician, is among them, to judge from his fine, idiomatic performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. I think he still has to grow in his projection and range of dynamics and colouring, but the basics are all there. He is a remarkable musician.

And finally, in a tour de force of orchestral virtuosity, Volkov and the SSO delivered a concise, unpretentious and to the point performance of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. It was so clearly defined it was riveting.

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