This Royal Scottish National Orchestra concert would have got five stars even if it had contained only this performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor. The chemistry of the live performance can be deceptive but, listening to Bruno Delepelaire playing the solo part, I found myself wondering if I had ever heard this piece played better.

Bruno Delepelaire, Han-Na Chang and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Jessica Cowley

Of course, you’d expect virtuosity and flawless technique from a soloist like Delepelaire: he’s Principal Cello of the Berlin Philharmonic, after all; and his technique was close to perfection in the opening and closing flourishes. What really distinguished this performance, however, was the sheer sensitivity of Delepelaire’s playing. Poetic, operatic, lyrical, I began to run out of adjectives to describe the sheer beauty of what he was managing to produce from his instrument. He seemed to lead, rather than be swept up in, the sweeping main theme of the first movement, and he felt his way tentatively towards the start of the Scherzo rather than launching into it. The effect was to reveal the music's vulnerability, the poetry pulsating beneath the drama, and it had the result of drawing the audience in as though we were listening to a private conversation. 

Delepelaire played the gorgeous main theme of the Adagio so softly that at times it seemed to quiver on the verge of audibility, floating delicately above the orchestra like a feather on a breeze. He then managed to combine smoothness with martial energy in the main theme of the finale, but the memory of the Adagio’s main theme, occurring just before the final flourish, was heart-stoppingly beautiful, a tender pause before the final plunge. Delepelaire played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations in the RSNO’s first concert after lockdown. Can Scottish audiences dare to hope that he’ll be a regular guest?

The orchestral performance that matched him was first class, too, shaped by conductor Han-Na Chang in a superb RSNO debut. She conducts with her whole arm, sometimes seeming to draw the sound up from her knees, but her movements are fluid and clear, and she clearly hit it off with the orchestra judging by the melancholy colour she summoned from the strings at the start of the concerto, balanced very cleverly by sweetened winds.

Han-Na Chang conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Jessica Cowley

Throughout, her pacing seemed perfectly judged to balance Elgar's power and lyricism, and her take on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was every bit as strong; exciting and forward-thrusting, tapping into the music’s drama without being too heavily driven. The first movement was light on its feet, with no repeat so as to keep the momentum going. The orchestra played on modern instruments, though using different timpani and trumpets to the first half, generating a muscular sound that seemed to glow in the big brass moments like the trio of horns in the Scherzo or the last variation of the finale. The Funeral March had energy coursing through its veins, and the major key climax at its heart felt like the point around which the whole symphony was focused. Transparent yet rich, this was a Beethoven sound that I often long for but only occasionally hear.

The William Tell Overture might be a pop hit, but when it’s played like this it’s a reminder that it’s anything but superficial music. Instead it’s a miniature, four-scene tone poem, every part of which sounded rich and satisfying here.

A great soloist, a great conducting debut and great playing all round: as the RSNO’s last season concert of 2022, I’d say that’s quite a Christmas present.