City Hall, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

WITH two works on the programme, Donald Runnicles' 60th birthday concert with the BBC SSO on Thursday night was everything it might have been, not least because it threw a spotlight on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat, K 364.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.


Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Michael Tumelty

I COULDN'T say this until after the RSNO's tremendous concert with Peter Oundjian and Nicola Benedetti on Saturday night, though I suspected it might be special. But what an extraordinary weekend it has been, witnessing Scotland's three national orchestras, all on top form, all rolling out musical wonders on consecutive nights, and all reviewed today. It was like watching a fleet of flagships in full sail; there was something majestic about it all.

The RSNO's standing-room only concert on Saturday was mind-blowing. Shostakovich's complex First Violin Concerto is relatively new to Nicola Benedetti's repertoire, but my God has she got it by the throat. It's one of the most unremittingly serious things she's done. She was right under the skin, right in the searing soul of the music, conquering structural and technical issues in a performance as mature as it was blisteringly intense. But what will stay with this listener was her unwavering concentration and the sheer intensity of her playing. I've never known her so focused: there was something magnetic about it as she drew the composer's codes and secrets from the score, giving them vivid life and form. Dare I suggest this was a supreme Benedetti performance, and a red-letter day (night) in her career?

Peter Oundjian's electrifying performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, with the RSNO in white-hot form, was provocative in that it challenged some assumptions about this deeply autobiographical work, particularly in the finale, where Oundjian came close to lifting the lid on what the astonishing music might actually be about. I'll tell you about this soon: it's an intriguing thesis. But, for now, what an unforgettable weekend with Scotland's orchestras.


City Hall, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

I'VE never seen so many people brimming with life and exuberance as those rolling out of the City Hall on Friday from an extraordinary Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert where the great Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja had just played both of Brahms's Piano Concertos, back to back in a single concert, directed by the intriguing Finnish conductor Okko Kamu.

There's some factual stuff here: a year ago, if you had tipped me the wink that we'd hear both of these Olympian, epic Romantic masterpieces in a single concert, I'd have suggested you were off your trolley. The SCO's chief executive met Leonskaja, invited her to perform with the orchestra, and asked her what she'd like to play. "Brahms's two Piano Concertos," she replied. "Over a two-week period," assumed the SCO boss. "No, in one night," came the response. At which point chief executive Roy McEwan fell off his seat.

On Friday it happened, with Okko Kamu securing a rock-solid orchestral backing for astounding performances by Leonskaja, a glorious pianist in her late sixties who played with inexhaustible stamina, bottomless depths of characterisation, and disarmingly matter of fact, pretension-free delivery. She negotiated effortlessly the great intellectual Everest that is the First Concerto, with the formidable peaks of its opening movement and the shattering emotional depths of its slow movement. She then swept through the more mercurial Second Concerto, the one with the heavenly slow movement, whose gorgeous cello melody was exquisitely played by Richard Lester, while Leonskaja created a halo of beauty around it with just single notes. The entire, wonderful night was supported by a significantly augmented SCO that seriously rose to a grand occasion.

Gould Piano Trio

City Halls Recital Room

Miranda Heggie

To play the same piece twice in one concert could be considered unorthodox, but the concept employed on Friday evening of bookending James MacMillan's Piano Trio No. 2 with a discussion between the composer, players and Glasgow Life's director of music Svend Brown, was a stroke of genius. The Gould piano trio began the recital with an intense and passionate performance of this marvellously intricate work, a commission by the trio, along with Bath International Music Festival, Glasgow Life and the East Neuk Festival, which received its premier only in May this year. As well as acknowledging an enjoyment in returning to writing chamber music, MacMillan professed it was almost second nature - "part of [his] natural musical personality" to draw on traditional Scottish music in his composition. The composer also confessed to hearing different things each time the trio is performed, and indeed the Celtic-inspired violin melodies seemed more plaintive and poignant the second time around. Pianist Benjamin Frith lent sublime, dream-like qualities to the music, before bringing a playful yet deliberate audacity to the stride piano passages, while cellist Alice Neary gave an alluring caramel flavour to the sonorous cello pedals.

The trio's magnetism as chamber performers was further cemented with their rendition of Beethoven's Archduke trio - the stark dynamic contrasts in the piece executed with a perfect balance of surprise and appeasement. Lucy Gould on violin soared through the score, with tender and emphatic playing as she affirmed the composer's harmonic shifts, and her and Neary's pizzicatos, deployed with an almost feline stealth, were beautifully juxtaposed with Frith's supple ornamentation.