The reassuring sound of the handbells rung by staff in the curved corridors of the Usher Hall, rounding up the audience, suddenly clarified what we have been missing. Pressed into duty as a vaccination centre for many months, the hall reopened as a concert venue in September allowing the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to return for the much-missed Friday night season last week. The audience was socially distanced and masked, but there were over 1000 of us watching the orchestra players, numbers up to a lively full strength, take their seats on stage, a moment Edinburgh audiences have been longing for. There was a thunderous reception as conductor Thomas Søndergård thanked everyone for their support and introduced this mostly Russian programme of festive and magical music.

Thomas Søndergård conducts the RSNO
© Sally Jubb

The Isle is Full of Noises, a new work by Matthew Rooke, was a short energetic opener harnessing the full power of the orchestra in just two minutes. A seething pulse from the strings quickly developed into a rolling joyous blow-out for all. To hear and feel the rumble of the big brass in the hall’s wonderful acoustic was thrilling.

Rooke was in the audience to hear his work, but so was Dmitri Shostakovich when this orchestra played his Festive Overture at the Edinburgh Festival, believed to be the work’s UK premiere. Søndergård took the piece at a remarkable lick, the woodwinds flying along after the opening fanfare as if driven in by shrieking winds from the Russian steppe. The conductor built on the excitement, first calming the central section but then leaning right over the violins urging them onwards to the brass-filled joyful finale.

Bruno Delepelaire and the RSNO

Bruno Delepelaire, principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic, was the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. It is a joyful and virtuosic work, perhaps the cello concerto Tchaikovsky might have written. Perched atop a small rostrum complete with f-holes, Delepelaire gave a warm and thrilling account starting from simple beginnings, his Matteo Goffriller instrument sounding gloriously sonorous. Søndergård responded with sensitive accompaniment, soloist and violins in dialogue and a warm woodwind ensemble adding depth. Eyes were firmly on Delepelaire, his body remarkably static as he nimbly scampered around his instrument from bottom C to the top harmonic. The variations became more complex with double-stopping and very showy moments especially in the cadenzas. I enjoyed the interaction with the orchestra, including a perfectly synchronised glissando with the flute and mellow lyrical playing growing in stature to dramatically wrap up the piece.

The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first collaboration with Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes, its success in 1910 paving the way for Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Perhaps more familiar to concert audiences as a suite, the work was performed here complete. It is a piece that really demands visual accompaniment, so a challenge to hold an audience’s attention, but the orchestra gave a terrific account. Søndergård wove an enchanted spell starting from deep shadows, beginning in the cellos and basses, to the strange bassoon and celesta sound world of Kastchei's magic garden and to silvery dance music. The RSNO illustrated this Russian fairy tale vividly, muted strings conjuring the mysterious, with perky percussion and bouncing cello bows livening things up, there was fine solo work all round. Finally, off-stage trumpets sounded and the music exploded into the Infernal Dance, the brass roaring and strident as the work approached its famous celebratory ending.