In the past few days, Nicola Benedetti has been clapping Kodály rhythms with 250 children in East Ayrshire, inspiring pupils at a local primary school and, after this performance, coaching senior players at St Mary’s Music School. She puts down her precious violin to speak out publically when music education is threatened, and is a hands-on ambassador for the Big Noise project, Scotland’s version of El Sistema, now attracting chunky public funding and launching its fourth orchestra. We have to be reminded that she is wonderfully talented international soloist and it is understandable that her appearances with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow and Edinburgh were sell-outs. There were two other reasons to make this evening special: Berlioz’s dramatic Symphonie fantastique, and the Scottish première of James MacMillan’s Little Mass, co-commissioned for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic celebrating 175 years and the RSNO its younger sister at a mere 125.

Nicola Bendetti © Kevin Westenberg
Nicola Bendetti
© Kevin Westenberg
Over 120 Junior Chorus members packed the organ gallery in their smart black RSNO shirts for the Little Mass, a substantial setting of the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei with generous room for MacMillan’s trademark piquant orchestral flavourings. Beginning quietly in the lower strings, the Kyrie was an unsettling palette of muted trumpet, the fluttering woodwind ripples a background for soaring children’s voices in subtly changing harmonies, an impressionistic wash of music rising to a climax before rediscovering initial calm. The Sanctus was terrifying, a thundersheet creating a real storm with a frenzied trumpet fanfare and a mad dance with brass, bells and piercing whistle of piccolo underpinned with bass clarinet. It is an uncompromising work for the singers, and the Junior Chorus under Christopher Bell managed their difficult entries splendidly with flowing choral lines and perfect diction, as well as surprising us with otherworldly unpitched whispering. A softer lyrical Benedictus provided some respite before a noisy playful march finished the movement with final high Hosanna with deep orchestral rumbles. Passionate strings in the Agnus Dei began quietly with a simple sung theme, but excitement grew with brass chorale, cheeky woodwind and bell-like scales in the percussion. The final quiet chord almost but never quite resolved as it faded and we reached an uneasy peace, MacMillan keeping the questions going. The challenging music for children to sing suggested a ghost of Britten, but it was the loss this week of another voice, Peter Maxwell Davies – whom MacMillan met and so much admired – which struck me as the composer came to the stage, beaming at the youngsters at the end of this beautiful restless work.    

Nicola Benedetti’s playing of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto launched her career, but his Violin Concerto no. 2 was written much later, and in collaboration with the virtuoso Paul Kochanski. It is a lush, sumptuous work in four movements run together with a cadenza separating the two pairs. It is a demanding piece for the soloist who barely stops from beginning to end, and has to be heard over a large orchestra going full tilt with piano, percussion and tuba. From the quiet opening over piano and woodwind, Benedetti produced a glorious sound of mellow tone, weaving into the growing orchestral texture. Lively folky music from the Tartra Mountains peppered the work, Benedetti in absolute command delivering an astonishing cadenza so full of double stops it sounded like a duel between two instruments, and with some deft left hand pizzicato thrown in it was a true showpiece. Peter Oundjian and the RSNO rose to the occasion too, with spiky melody, bouncing bows, glorious chord changes and perfectly timed crashes of sound. Benedetti’s mastery of this challenging work was never less than thrilling, and she calmed down the excitement with a thoughtful encore of Bach’s Sarabande in D minor.

Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique provided even more spectacle to an already dramatic evening. Written only seven years after Beethoven’s death, the opium filled narrative and thrilling music is years ahead of its time. Oundjian, nursing a painful leg and confined to a conductor’s chair, nevertheless drove his players on to an awesome account of this big symphony full of verve and big moments. It was in the delicacy of detail that this performance shone, with an elegant ball with lovely solos from the woodwind, and a haunting pastoral scene with echoing shepherds’ horns, lyrical colourful passages, wonderful cello moments and delicate clarinet solo. It was a thrill to watch the four timpani players creating the distant rolling thunder which presages the nightmare of March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, and the entry of the big brass to the work with cheering crowd fanfares and a thundering Dies irae. The Gallic clang of the bell signalled a final heady rush for the orchestra, Oundjian letting them race to the end while holding a perfect balance in a thrilling end to an exciting evening.

*****