Sometimes it’s better not to watch the conductor. At times during this evening’s concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on their visit to Sage Gateshead, I found myself distracted from the music by the idiosyncratic style of Yan Pascal Tortelier. His principal motion was a strident vertical arm movement, as if he were beating an invisible stick, punctuated by wildly exaggerated shapes, and if there was any notion of a beat, it didn’t seem to match what was coming from the orchestra. It was disconcerting to watch, but it clearly gets results because what we heard was a programme of dazzling colour and imagination.

Yan Pascal Tortelier
© IMG Artists

Beethoven’s Egmont overture provided a stately start to the concert, its dignity somewhat at odds with what came later. Tortelier left acres of space between the opening chords, allowing them to ring through the building, and the BBCSSO strings glowed richly. The middle of the piece was a bit too ponderous for my liking, but it did allow Tortelier to build up to a magnificently grand ending, as befits Egmont’s heroic sacrifice on the scaffold, and making a nice contrast with Berlioz’s nightmare execution scene later.

After the slightly stiff Beethoven, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major was a breath of fresh air. The whip-crack that begins the concerto snapped everyone to attention, then after the first sparkles from the winds the orchestra suddenly seemed to relax, taking their cue from soloist Steven Osborne who breezed through Ravel’s relentless virtuosity as though he were just messing about at home. The outer movements were lively, but never felt rushed, with the winds expertly matching the precision of Osborne’s runs, and dazzling trumpet playing injecting lots of fun. The carefree playing became an unassuming tranquility in the quieter sections, enhanced by sweet delicacies from the two harps, and these passages provided a preface to a dreamy slow movement. Osborne spun out his long solo in an unbroken and tender legato, and the winds slipped back in so gently that they seemed to emerge from out of the piano texture. Osborne’s line became gentle, absent-minded musings, a backdrop to some fine wind solos, and Tortelier kept the texture feather-light, avoiding any descent into syrupy Romanticism. He brought the orchestra down to an exquisite pianissimo at the end of the movement, creating a real shock for the abrupt gear change back to the jazzy delights of the final movement, led by the ever-vibrant trumpets. Orchestra and soloist really let their hair down here, plunging joyfully down the glissandi into a madcap ending.

The contrasts between dreaminess and madcap chaos continued in the second half with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, in which Tortelier and the BBCSSO vividly captured all the madness of the composer’s drug-induced nightmares. What began as a restless fever built up across the five movements into ghastly visions: a serious lesson on the dangers of opium! In the first movement, musical ideas were jerky and hesitant as they came and went, always with the feeling that you couldn’t quite pin them down, just like the confused jumbles of thoughts that haunt a night of disturbed sleep. Then as the double-basses and brass powered in, these elusive thoughts developed into something far more fraught. The terrors held off for the swirling waltz at the ball and the fresh air of the countryside, but in both of these movements the air of dreamlike unreality was ever-present, the dancers in Tortelier’s graceful shaping ghostly echoes of something lost forever. The oboe and cor anglais duet provided pastoral innocence, with the lushness of the strings creating a balmy summer evening in this interlude before the terrors really got going. These began with the final cor anglais solo, in which the answering oboe is replaced by ominous drum rumbles: the cor anglais soloist James Horan and the BBCSSO percussion section set up a dialogue that was packed with dramatic tension.

Going into the final two movements, Tortelier kept the orchestra on a tight leash; the beginning of the “March to the Scaffold” was measured and contained with just occasional bursts of fire. The lower brass instruments led the build-up into the tragic mock-solemnity that ends the movement, but they were just a bit overblown, and would have been more compelling if they’d toned down just a notch. They were, however, extremely effective in the first statement of the Dies irae, as Tortelier made each note a detached explosion before joining them up into a tune, and he encouraged the bells to ring out firmly through the texture. The tremulant violins created swirls of mist whilst laser-sharp winds pierced through with their grotesque taunting of the hero. The ending was chaotic, and it seemed as if everyone had lost control, but that’s no bad thing in this particular piece.