City Halls, Glasgow

Four stars

THE combination of one of the best-loved concertos in the repertoire and one of the UK’s most popular young conductors drew a near capacity house to the City Halls on Thursday evening, but the night belonged to the second half’s symphony, William Walton’s First in B flat minor, composed in the mid-1930s and now much more rarely performed than it once was, at least in Scotland.

In John Wilson, best known for concerts of Hollywood and Broadway music with his own orchestra, the SSO has made the latest of what is now a highly impressive sequence of conductor signings, and his focus on English music of the 20th century had an all-Elgar first half here. The rumbustiously cinematic Cockaigne overture from 1901 is not a million miles from the American music with which Wilson is most closely associated, and the SSO strings gave early indication of the fine form they would maintain all night.

Crucially that applied to the multi-layered conversation between the various sections of the strings and soloist Leonard Elschenbroich in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which is as much the source of its perennial appeal as its rich melodic content. So too, however, is its melancholy, which everyone accepts as a cello trope, and Elschenbroich’s technical mastery was not always matched by the emotional depth audiences expect from a work completed in the year after the First World War.

By comparison with those works, and although not in any sense experimental in its own day, Walton’s Symphony No1 still sounds much more modern in its bold scoring. With terrific brass playing at the end of the first movement and the finale’s climax, which also requires second tympanist (Martin Willis alongside a very busy Gordon Rigby), there were many superb individual performances, particularly the golden-toned bassoon of Julian Roberts and Charlotte Ashton’s flute.