The headline item of this weekend's RSNO concerts always seemed set to be pretty special. Conductor Stéphane Denève always seems most at home with extravagant and dramatic pieces, or pieces by French composers. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is both and thus expectations were high. They did not disappoint. Not only was there plenty of excitement but also some exceptional playing from the orchestra, both as an ensemble and in solo passages, especially Zoe Kitson on cor anglais in the third movement and principal flute Katherine Bryan (whose playing once again reminded me that I should check out her new disc).
Denève provided a reading full of contrast, both in volume and texture, such as the super pianissimo string playing that began the Dance of the Witches Sabbath after mighty conclusion of March to the Scaffold. He did well at holding back the full power of the orchestra in the opening movements, instead building the tension continually; this meant that when they let loose in the last two movements the effect was all the more devastating. There were plenty of nice touches along the way. Perhaps, he read my review of Runnicles' account a little while back, which had superb placement of offstage forces. Similarly, it was impossible, from where I was sitting, to spot the offstage oboe, which had a nicely etherial effect; ditto the bells at the end. It was the kind of performance to have you struggling to sit still, whether in those frantic closing passages or earlier during the ball, which really did dance.
In most concerts this would be sufficient to put the rest of the programme into the shade. Not so here. The evening had opened with another in the RSNO's Ten out of 10 series of new music. Young Scottish composer Helen Grime has impressed me when I have heard her work before, and Virga was no exception. In a spoken introduction she listed Ligeti and Knussen among her influences, which perhaps explains this. The piece takes its name from precipitation which never reaches the ground and, in the space of six minutes, says so much that one to some extent regrets that Denève was joking when he suggested they would play it six times to compensate for the length. It was both turbulent and extremely vivid; some music, such as Sibelius, always fills my mind with images and this piece seems to fall into that same category. She also made wonderful use of the orchestral textures at her disposal, this was especially apparent as she built her forces back up following a passage for first violins alone.
Perhaps my only reservation is that, like all the other nine works selected, this was not a new commission. In general, I'm a fan of the series, not least as in pairing modern pieces with blockbusters it is exposing them to a wider audience. However, the lack of genuinely new pieces, especially from one of Scotland's foremost young composers, does seem like something of a missed opportunity.
They were then joined by Frank Peter Zimmerman for Szymanowski's second violin concerto. The first time I came across Zimmerman, he was playing the first with the Berlin Philharmonic. This second was every bit as impressive and he delivered a veritable masterclass, most apparently in the long cadenza. His playing was both very precise and clear, but what elevates him to being a truly great player is that he isn't clinical in the way some who have those qualities can be. The work is not one I know but it is beautiful, especially in the way the orchestra echos the soloist. Cast in a single movement, they moved organically from section to section, Denève proving a sensitive accompanist and the orchestra at the top of their game.
As if that wasn't enough, Zimmerman returned to the stage to give us a little Bach as an encore, just as he did after the first concerto in 2006. Then, as now, the conductor perched at one side of the stage to listen. Zimmerman's performance was beautiful, rich and particularly fine in the clarity with which he elucidated the different musical lines.
In short, it was a very fine evening of music making.