Swedish Philharmonia/Martin

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE USHER Hall management may have been waiting for some clarity from the UK authorities regarding its future programme, but the Spanish chief conductor of Ireland’s RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Jaime Martin, was unequivocal. Given the measures being taken elsewhere in his world of work, he expected Sunday afternoon’s concert to be his last for some time.

As it happened it was also the last date of his tour, in the company of star soloist Viktoria Mullova, at the helm of the Swedish Philharmonia, an ensemble also known as the Gavle Symphony Orchestra after the city where it is based, and where he succeeded Robin Ticciati as principal conductor. Understandably, many of the orchestra’s potential Edinburgh audience had clearly decided to stay away, but those who were in the hall will surely have the distinctive string sound of this group of musicians in their minds for some time.

I do not think I have never previously been at a concert that began with Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, the “Reformation”, but its slow-paced intensity was the ideal introduction to this large chamber orchestra, whose violins were capable of producing a remarkable delicacy of sound when that was crucially what was required. After the interval, they would bring that dynamic clarity to the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, and to the pizzicato passages later in the work as well, and it was that accomplishment that really stood out, rather than the famous “swan theme” from the horns and brass that is hook in the work.

In between, Mullova played the comparatively little heard Violin Concerto No 2 by Prokofiev, which is a modestly-paced piece until its finale. She is the least flamboyant of musicians, but her rich tone on the solo opening bars nonetheless commanded immediate attention. Even if the concerto lacks the melodies of the composer’s ballet music, it is full of atmosphere, and the more muscular rhythmic final movement is absolutely up her street, played here with consummate poise and grace.