Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

four stars

IF everything in the RSNO’s Beethoven Revolution series of concerts to mark the composer’s 250th birthday has the refreshing approach that Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan brought to his Symphony No.7, we are in for a treat.

This reading of a work that many people name as a favourite of the nine managed the tricky feat of being both a new experience for seasoned concert-goers and ideal Beethoven-for-beginners.

So much in the performance of this music, and particularly in the management of the repetitions, is in the hands of the conductor, and often based on precedent as much as what is on the page. In Chan’s meticulous hands that pathway was carefully measured and contained, and boldly understated for the unfolding of the first movement. The building tension was so carefully controlled that details of the scoring emerged with vibrant clarity, and although the tempo was never sluggish, Chan often seemed to be consciously rejecting the edict of historically-informed performance that a brisk pace is always best. The closing bars of both the second and third movements were markedly slower than has been the norm of late, and the conductor’s direction made these moments crucial to the overall shape of the work. Even in the finale there was the sensation that she was reining the sound in, except when the score clearly indicated the involvement of everyone on stage. I reckon Ludwig would have been on his feet cheering at the end of this Seventh.

What the composer would have thought of Jorg Widmann’s Con Brio, which began the evening, is perhaps more open to question. Although it had the benefit of a spoken introduction by the conductor, it divided the audience. In an exercise in live sampling, Widmann explores the wider possibilities of orchestral noise, and specifically includes fragments from Beethoven’s later symphonies in the mix. It was at least unusual, which can hardly be said of the Violin Concerto No.1 by Max Bruch, currently appearing in concert programmes more often than is good for it. Eighteen-year-old Dutch violinist Noa Wildschudt performed it with admirable technical precision, but less emotional heft than it needs, and, to be frank, I’d have preferred to hear her play almost anything else.