The appealing warmth and family feel to performances by the Glasgow based Amicus Orchestra come from its strong links to the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, providing the perfect place for talented musicians to continue to broaden their musical careers. For their last concert of 2019, the bar was raised very high with two huge and contrasting Russian works, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 followed by Shostakovich’s epic Symphony no. 10, performed in the acoustically intimate concert hall at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland under their principal conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire.

Elena Fischer-Dieskau
© Bill Kean

Soloist for the Tchaikovsky was pianist Elena Fischer-Dieskau who brought exciting drama and an infectious sparky attitude to the well-known piece. The opening horns followed by full orchestra together with the mighty piano chords set the bold tone, Fischer-Dieskau’s blistering attack matched every bit by the players. As the movement developed, Larsen-Maguire carefully managed the balance and tempo changes, the lush sounding muted strings contrasting spectacularly with their fierce detached chords, two flutes adding colour. Fischer Dieskau’s initial approach was bold and authoritative, her touch turning light and dreamily sensitive in the development passages in the long first movement. The slower Andantino allowed the players more room to breathe with a lovely flute solo and elegant pastoral woodwinds before Fischer-Dieskau’s increasingly fast runs and dynamic flourishes had everyone scampering playfully in the Scherzo, with calm returning as the two flutes emerged into a quiet ending.

The final movement with its Ukrainian dance theme was thrilling, a showcase for the orchestra and soloist. The players were bristling with energy but Larsen-Maguire kept them on a tight leash, glancing over her shoulder and matching time with the soloist as final passions ran high, Fischer-Dieskau making the fearsome chord sequences and double octave runs look easy, hurtling towards an exciting finish.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was completed and premiered in 1953 just after Stalin’s death marking the composer’s rehabilitation following his second denunciation in 1948. The work reflects the brutality and despair of Stalin’s reign of terror, but ends with optimistically with the composer’s own code DSCH hammered home in the horns and timpani. The large forces for the Tchaikovsky were augmented with the extra brass, woodwind and percussion players required to perform this extraordinary symphony.

Larsen-Maguire, conducting this huge work from an improbably tiny score, drew intricate blended detail from the opening strings, inner parts emerging eerily to establish an unsettling atmosphere. Silky soft clarinet and flute solos kept the solemn feel as the intensity built with sparky woodwind and violent strings giving us a glimpse of genuine terror before the music quietened down to two piccolos and faint timpani. Whether the second movement was a portrait of Stalin, or simply an expression of anger and aggression, the impact is nevertheless ferocious and at this performance, breathtaking. The Amicus strings bit hard into the frantic semiquavers and dotted rhythms with pungency, woodwind shrieking and the brass ominous with the side-drum adding military menace.

The Allegretto features the composer’s musical monogram DSCH in the woodwinds, but it is joined by the “Elmira” motif also in musical code from the solo horn, Elmira Nazirova being Shostakovich’s pupil in Moscow. The solo clarinet turned edgy and forceful, the music again turning sinister, the strings responding with newly found verve. The final Andante with a sweet solo oboe set a tone of despair and longing, but the tone turned more optimistic with a dance developing. The terrors returned with the insistent side-drum ‘death-rolls’, but the DSCH theme emerged triumphant, the composer signing off his work unmistakably. A feature of the symphony are the several solos and then solo sections, the Amicus players getting their moments in the spotlight, shining magnificently in a piece blazing with intense energy, a treat to hear in this perfect venue.