Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

five stars

HALF her lifetime ago, it was a bold choice for Nicola Benedetti to play Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 in the final of the BBC Young Musician competition in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. A relatively unfamiliar work then, it requires – and therefore displays – prodigious technique across its entire duration, not just the flashy cadenza near the end.

The work clearly still sits comfortably under the fingers of the violinist, but the emotional weight she brings to it is much greater, as is her evident curiosity to see what the work can still reveal in partnership with a different conductor.

This one, the RSNO’s music director Thomas Sondergard, was clearly revelling in having a full complement of musicians back in Glasgow’s big hall – the players spread out from the stage over the stalls to meet the requirements of social distancing. The concerto requires big forces, including two harps, piano and celesta, and this concert brought 40 string players together again.

The orchestra’s chief executive Alistair Mackie has been committed to preserving the PolskaScotland strand of a season blighted by the pandemic, with the recent marking of the anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz also preserved – and arguably enhanced – in its digital programme. The placing of Benedetti’s signature concerto in between fascinating works by two later Polish composers gave it a particular context here.

The opening Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes by Mieczyslaw Weinberg is a packed 12 minutes that states the Warsaw-born, Moscow-domiciled composer’s Jewish ethnicity in its opening tune. With a huge string sound and imperious brass in the choir stalls above, it also becomes a real showpiece for the orchestra’s wind soloists – and eventually also first violin Sharon Roffman – trading phrases in a truly mesmerising way.

Concluding a trio of Polish works, the Szymanowski was followed by Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony No 3), a work with a very particular connection to the Scottish orchestra. It was under the baton of Alexander Gibson that the SNO gave the work its Polish premiere at a Warsaw festival in 1978, in defiance of the authorities who regarded the composer, who had fled communism for Britain, as beyond the pale.

Panufnik had written the four-movement work 15 years previously, to mark a thousand years of Christianity in Poland. It culminates in a Hymn of plaintive simplicity, derived from medieval Polish plainchant, preceded by three Visions: the first a trumpet fanfare, the second a slow meditation for strings, and the third a dramatic movement for percussion with a compelling dialogue between the strings and brass before the wind section completes the picture.

A remarkable programme launching the orchestra’s second digital season by announcing that it is in top form for the time when audiences can re-join the live experience.

Available to view via the RSNO website.