It wasn't just a season opening like any other that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra launched on Friday, but its 125th anniversary season. This celebratory concert featured Nicola Benedetti, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony under the direction of music director Peter Oundjian. While the concerto was impressive by its virtuosity, the symphony conveyed a magnificent lyricism, full of colours and nuances. A delightful celebration indeed!

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

After a short but very theatrical Waltz from Khachaturian's Masquerade, plus a little welcome speech given by Oundjian, the star everyone was expecting finally arrived on-stage: Nicola Benedetti. The Scottish violinist is extremely well-known and appreciated in her country, and the audience showed it as soon as she appeared, acclaiming her for several minutes before a note of Tchaikovsky’s concerto. Benedetti deserved it and, once again, she proved it. She plays in a very precise manner: all the notes are audible, well-pitched, expressive, even in chords. Her violin sounds like a voice: her playing is extremely sensitive, unveiling the very soul of the music, and even its little imperfections are actually loveable because they are constitutive of a general trend which is irresistible. Oundjian managed to create a beautiful balance between soloist and orchestra. They shared the same understanding of the music, no one was covering the other, and the dynamics were completely homogeneous. It was obvious that both Benedetti and the orchestra were taking great pleasure in playing this passionate piece, and it felt good. Every part of the interpretation was well mastered: changes in tempi (especially accelerations), dialogues between different instruments, variations in the expressivity. The third movement is made of several humorous moments, and Benedetti really showed here how amazing her playing can be. Her energy was thrilling and left the audience frantic!

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Oundjian was completely in tune with his orchestra; there was a solid trust, a natural understanding between him and the musicians. The key word of this symphony is lyricism – and the second key word would be romanticism. The round sound created by the RSNO was made of several layers which were perfectly intertwined, and the melody is stretched on and on as if it would never end. Waves of this coloured sound were thus circling up in the air, melting into each other and invading the Usher Hall, and the magical atmosphere of the symphony spread out around the audience.

During the extensive first movement, the mix of rhythms resulted in a kind of turbulence which increased this impression of something magical, enchanting. The second movement brought a new kind of feeling: we had embarked on an odyssey. Some passages could be used as film music; we picture an adventure, a horse ride through a forest, a romance… Both themes are very powerful, and they conveyed variations of intensity which were beautifully rendered by the orchestra. In the Adagio, the tension changed; it was all about tenderness, love, overwhelming passion. The irresistible melody, which springs from the clarinet at first, is taken over by the whole orchestra. The dynamics increased over and over until the most striking climax was reached. Lyricism has maybe never been so ardently illustrated. The fourth movement brings in a new kind of lyricism: this time, it is filled with a strong optimism, expressed by the ascending and joyful motifs played by the strings. The finale exudes hope, joie de vivre; the music enthusiastically rushed into a promising future. The light and fearless melody, embellished with glittering percussion resonated over the main orchestral texture. The splendour at the symphony's finale was astonishing, but really it was only the cherry on top of an incredibly delightful cake to conclude this delightful concert.