BBC SSO/Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

IT is surely too simplistic to believe that the first ten minutes of Thursday’s programme, the cinematic melancholy of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, explained the capacity house for a concert in which it prefaced Mahler’s heart-rending Kinderrtotenleider and the defiance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. There was no obvious exit at the interval, and the age range in the hall suggested that the BBC SSO’s marketing department is doing something right with its pitch for younger music-lovers.

In fact the structure of the programme, in which the similarities between the Barber and the slow movement of the contemporaneous Shostakovich must have been audible to all, was one of the finest things about it. The desire to make that clear perhaps explained conductor Michael Sanderling’s slightly muted start to the symphony, with the beautiful playing of the SSO strings overshadowed by pianist Lynda Cochrane’s mighty right hand. It was a whole different story, of course, when the brass and percussion joined the fray and the quieter moments of the Allegretto, with leader Laura Samuel and Helen Thomson’s harp, paved the way for that third movement Largo grabbing the attention in a way it often does not in the rush to the brutal march of the finale.

The conductor’s control of the dynamics of the work was certainly distinctive and ultimately compelling.

Film-makers tend to use either the opening or closing sections of Barber’s string orchestra arrangement of the Adagio of his quartet, while the arc of the whole thing is fascinating for the rules it breaks in the development of its theme – and the real treat here was the joy of hearing these players at the top of their game.

There were also questions of balance at the start of Mahler’s Ruckert song-cycle, the SSO winds initially rather louder than contralto Claudia Huckle. But with lovely playing from first oboe Stella McCracken and horn Alberto Menendez Escribano, the beautiful timbre of Huckle’s voice later asserted itself in the context of a big orchestra, fully deployed, in this splendid acoustic. Hers was a performance of elegance and poise, however, rather than any raw emotion.