Since the outbreak of Russia’s war on Ukraine, going to concerts has taken on some of the atmosphere of what it was like at the beginning of the pandemic. There’s weight in the air, a sense of momentousness, and while there’s less chance of events being shut down, the atmosphere carries more than a smidgeon of fear. 

Elim Chan
© Sally Jubb

We’ve rarely needed Fauré’s Requiem more. It’s so well-loved because it pours balm on our troubles and, as conductor Elim Chan reminded us tonight, there’s only one page of Hell. This was a lovely performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra too, one almost tailored to make us feel comfort and consolation, though the really good stuff was coming from the orchestra. Speaking as one who, like many millions, learnt this work by singing it accompanied by a pianist, details of Fauré’s orchestration still have the power to catch me unawares, like the divided violas and occluded cellos of the Offertorium, or the warm blanket of strings in the Agnus Dei. Those strings sounded terrific tonight, and the brass cresting the top of the Sanctus gave me the chills, as did the delicacy of Pie Jesu, which felt like being let in on a secret.

And the singing? Well, the RSNO Junior Chorus sounded fine, barring a few balance issues where the altos tended to dominate, and the lightness of the voices suited the heavenward-bound moments like the Sanctus and In Paradisum. Technically all sounded good, which is a tribute to their director, Patrick Barrett, but I really missed the greater range that tenors and basses contribute. That particularly hurt the Agnus Dei whose vision of eternal light passed for very little. Of course, I knew what I was letting myself in for when I heard it was with a junior chorus; but I was surprised by how restricted I found the sound. Marcus Farnsworth sang the baritone role with both lyricism and warmth, perhaps too much so in the Dies irae, though Katy Anna Hill’s soprano sounded rather blank in the Pie Jesu.

The RSNO Junior Chorus
© RSNO

I got much more bite from Grażyna Bacewicz’s Divertimento, ten condensed minutes of edgy nervous energy, with wiry glissandi and stabbing syncopations leading to a high-wire ending, excitingly played by the RSNO strings. They also put in a star turn in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2 in G major, particularly in the pitch black double basses which are so important to this work’s sound-world. Chan showed an impressively tight hold on this work, particularly the shadowy finale with its ghostly sense of inevitability that still manages to culminate in an unanswerable question mark.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Sally Jubb

It felt like a step up for Sheku Kanneh-Mason, too. When I’ve heard him before I’ve always been impressed by his technical skill but a bit suspicious about a lack of depth. Not tonight. There was definite heart to his playing of this emotionally tricky work, where the first movement, in particular, sounded dark and angry, almost defiant in some of his dialogues with the orchestra. The texture may have lightened in the second movement, but the mood certainly didn’t, and while Kanneh-Mason sounded admirably focused, at times he appeared to be straining at the leash.

How appropriate for this moment that the composer based his second movement on a melody from Odesa, a city over whose future a terrible shadow now hangs. Sarah Urwin Jones’ programme note said that parts of the concerto sounded “as if the ghosts of Shostakovich and Rostropovich themselves are arguing over a bread roll”. She’s right, but in a week like this the stakes feel somewhat higher.

***11