Festive Edinburgh looked spectacular at night, a bustling Christmas market at the foot of the Castle, lit up in a dramatic red. Even with a large choice of seasonal musical offerings across the city, Usher Hall was packed to hear Nicola Benedetti play Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, the centrepiece of a popular programme. Making an impressive debut with the orchestra, young German conductor Christian Reif brought added excitement to a memorable concert to end the year, and indeed, decade for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Christian Reif
© Stefan Cohen

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in great haste to celebrate an anniversary of the October Revolution, is a seven-minute exercise in propaganda, its lively high energy instantly appealing to the authorities, its subsequent success surely raising a smile from the composer. Bookended with lively fanfares, Reif’s conducting elegantly guided the players through the mix of lyrical passages and feverishly high-speed scurrying, two flutes and piccolo cutting across pizzicato strings and snare drum before the brass came roaring back in sounding bombastic, rich and well balanced.

Nicola Benedetti has said that the best moment in all violin concertos is the explosion in the first movement of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, her love of this work clearly evident in a mesmerising performance of total engagement. Reif conjured the opening wintery shimmer from the violins out of thin air, Benedetti’s intense tone becoming more passionate as the music deepened mysteriously, her dramatic solo full of double stops and glissandi. As the orchestral tension built, a beautiful oboe musically depicted northern landscapes with the three trombones adding an edge of darkness, the waiting Benedetti was visibly restless, bursting to add her soaring violin to the picture. With pizzicatos in the lower strings, her violin almost sounded like two separate instruments in a virtuosic display. A slightly more reflective central movement introduced by delicate woodwind and horns showed Reif’s feeling for phrasing, providing guidance but allowing space for individuality. Benedetti’s lyrical side was by turns gorgeous and passionate, her richly glowing lower notes oozing warmth. Finally, the lower strings set up a rhythmic pulse, Benedetti’s solo bursting through into an animated jaunty gypsy-like dance, increasingly dazzling in its complexity, barely letting up and rounding off in a big finish. This genuinely thrilling performance from soloist and orchestra bodes well for their forthcoming short European tour in January.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was the single work in the second half where Reif and his players shone with a measured but spirited performance. Just as the work introduces the paintings, Ravel’s orchestration introduces a range of characters from the orchestra. A solo trumpet took the famous opening with Reif balancing the brass perfectly into a sonorous warmth with a lightness of touch. The Gnome was strange and haunting with menacing woodwind and brass joined by urgent strings into a climax. An evocative saxophone featured in The Old Castle over muted dreamy strings before the Promenade returned as growling brass introduced Tuileries, the famous gardens in Paris, Reif taking this at high speed allowing the music to vanish off into the air. The crescendo and decrescendo of Bydło (Oxen) was thrillingly done, the first trombone picking up a euphonium for the lugubrious solo, Reif opening both arms wide at the central climax. Sparkling woodwind became lively chicks, unison strings a wealthy Samuel Goldenberg, a plaintive muted trumpet a less fortunate Schmuyle. Limoges marketplace bustled, the players’ accents suggesting sharp elbows required, before a solemn brass passage took us deep underground into the Paris Catacombs. Baba Yaga was terrifying, the orchestra building the tension into such a frightening picture that you could almost see sparks from her gnashing iron teeth as she rampaged about. Finally, the Great Gate of Kiev was fabulous, with majestic playing from all, and as the bells arrived in the closing bars, a wonderful showcase for the orchestra and a genuinely impressive debut for Reif. I hope we see him return soon.