“A hot week of fantastic music making!” Martyn Brabbins summed up the past seven days, mentoring five student conductors from the UK and one from Helsinki working with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, culminating in a midweek concert. Brabbins was also preparing for a new piece from award-winning RCS composition student Mingdu Li and the Shostakovich epic Eleventh Symphony, where 14 lucky RSC students augmented the BBCSSO across most sections. This concert was also a showcase for rising star Emilie Godden, the Leverhume Conducting Fellow at RCS. Brabbins praised the rich open partnership and the importance of nurturing new talent.

Loading image...
Martyn Brabbins
© BBC Scottish SO

From Beijing, Mingdu Li studied Maths, then musical composition, her recent works combining disciplines as in this world premiere of Entropy, our universe becoming more chaotic. Restless short glissandi on brass then strings provided an ethereal backdrop as muted fanfares gave way to an unsettling building momentum, woodwinds chirruping like birds, the strings sounding like a flowing vortex. Brabbins brought light and shade, but in the end there was a sense of an uncontrollable beast of pure energy in the strings, ominous rumblings from the trombones and tuba, a short moment of respite preceding the final crash. A confident work, Li looked delighted as she took her bow.

Kyiv-born Reinhold Glière studied at the Moscow Conservatory, becoming professor of composition and holding various prodigious state musical posts. His 1951 Horn Concerto was written for Valery Polekh who showed the composer the extended possibilities of the instrument as valves replaced crooks. Richard Watkins was an engaging soloist in this joyous opulent work for large orchestra, but eyes were equally on Emilie Godden on the podium, who enjoyed releasing the orchestra into Glière's expansive neoclassical melodies, but achieved a sensitive balance too, allowing Watkins’ lively horn passages to emerge, his wide-ranging cadenza deftly handled. The lush, soupy slow movement had a broad sound, Watkins horn lyrical and using an astonishing echo technique. Full meaty brass introduced an exhilarating helter-skelter in the final Allegro, Godden controlling the hectic forces, always sympathetic to the soloist, Watkins rounding the work off in style.

Loading image...
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
© John Wood

Shostakovich Symphony no. 11 in G minor is an epic description of the failed 1905 Russian uprising in St Petersburg, taking us on a filmic journey of events as witnessed by the composer’s father and much discussed in the family home. Shostakovich completed this huge work, peppered with enough folk tunes to keep the Soviet state happy, but with disturbing undercurrents to convey deeper meaning. Brabbins had advised us that he would be holding nothing back, and this performance was indeed blisteringly visceral at times, but his pacing of this symphony, played continuously, was equally impressive. There were many standout moments. Beginning with the brooding intensity of the querulous people in the chilly Palace Square in January, icy strings softly pleading against the distant fanfare and muted side-drum as tension built, the players eventually moved like a seething mass. The massacre was brutal with pungent brass, shrieking woodwinds, shattering snare drum and timpani, with the cellos and basses, a huge powerhouse throughout, muscularly digging in, the celesta mysterious in a moment of calm. The viola section led by Jane Atkins was wonderfully moving in the Adagio, playing You fell as heroes deeply laden with layers of meaning. The Tocsin finale was a wild journey, quieter moments from bassoons and cor anglais, but the standout was the strings playing in fearsome lockstep. The warning bells brought this extraordinary work to a close, a shattering journey for players and audience alike.