It has been a storm-laden winter. Although Edinburgh largely missed the snowfall, those of us travelling to the Usher Hall on from further afield on 18th February had a reminder of the fearsome power of nature, as the snow blocked major routes early in the day. It was a perfect introduction to the premiere of Edinburgh-based Dutch composer Carlijn Metselaar’s Into the Living Mountain, a short work inspired by Nan Shepherd’s book about climbing in the Cairngorms, depicting the sensations of beauty and violence in the natural world. A full Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Thomas Søndergård conducting, took an initial urgent plunge into the wild landscape, with the low brass, rumbling timpani and intense strings portraying an ominous backdrop. Once the hiatus settled, the music became gentler: a brief alto flute solo and striking combinations of instruments provided dramatic colour. A harp and softly bouncing col legno bows sounded like a rippling mountain stream, while the flute and piccolo dreamed ethereally. The light-touch percussion, including bells and bowed cymbals, added atmosphere before the work revealed the wider landscape of wild Cairngorm mountain majesty.

Sharon Roffman and Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Royal Scottish National Orchestra

"One needs a stable stance to reach for the stars" – so says the extraordinarily theatrical Moldavian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja explaining why she plays in bare feet. Making her way to the front of the stage, violin held out head-high and in a stunning frock which could have featured in The Rite of Spring, parking her golden slippers under a music stand, she made a stunning impression before a note was played. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major is a sparking neoclassical showpiece.  Kopatchinskaja approached the spirited Toccata like a fiery dancer, vigorously engaging with glittering woodwinds and punchy brass as they marched along, Søndergård not quite containing their enthusiasm at first. Happily, the balance settled in the remaining movements, with Kopatchinskaja tip-toeing her way through obbligatos. A luscious mellow tone developed as she traded phrases with the flute in the Aria I, raising the emotional temperature in the Aria II. A blistering Capriccio had Kopatchinskaja playfully making light work of virtuoso passages, crouching low at times, ready to spring joyous surprises as Søndergård kept his players tight, finishing the work with a magnificent flourish. Kopatchinskaja explained that Stravinsky had not written a cadenza, so for an encore she improvised one, ending in a dazzling duet with the leader, Sharon Roffman.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thomas Søndergård and the RSNO
© Royal Scottish National Orchestra

There was a complete change of mood for the final work, one of the most romantic of all time. It took years for Rachmaninov to regain confidence after the disastrous premiere of his Symphony no. 1, but his lyrical Symphony no. 2 in E minor was received with triumph. In a work packed with luscious tunes, it can all become rather lugubrious if allowed to wallow. Søndergård was having none of that as the pacing was judged to perfection, the strings sounding deep and rich in the Largo: majesty tinged with Russian melancholy. Søndergård kept the mood mellow, letting the tunes swell and retreat like waves on the shore before gently pushing the momentum on into the Allegro moderato. Initial brassy excitement in the second movement gave way to swooning strings, with Søndergård managing the changes perfectly, taking the fugue section at a blistering pace. This made the performance not only a glorious listen but a compelling watch throughout. A luminous clarinet solo in the Adagio set a tender and expressive tone ahead of the exuberant final movement. Søndergård controlled the excitement, his attention to detail amplifying the moments of pure splendour.   

Audiences are still masked indoors in Scotland, and a move away from social distancing is only recent. A significant proportion of the audience were hearing a live orchestra inside for the first time in two years, deservedly making this performance a special occasion.