A nightmare for the organisers, a change of programme at short notice initially disappoints, but immediately whets the appetite for a surprise. Sadly, Nicola Benedetti had to withdraw from the programme, so the Scottish premiere of Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto will have to wait. Happily, at very short notice, young Dutch rising star Noa Wildschut was able to take time out of her busy schedule to join the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. French conductor Fabien Gabel bookended the concert with two storytelling compatriots, Hector Berlioz and the extraordinary Augusta Holmès.

Noa Wildschut and Fabien Gabel
© RSNO | James Montgomery

In a musical world dominated by men, Holmès triumphed against the odds coming from a musically unsupportive family. Studying under César Franck, she was barred from the Prix de Rome, but entered the City of Paris Music Prize, winning it under a male pseudonym (Hermann Zenta). The fuss when she had to return the award led to a major commission celebrating 100 years of the French Revolution, Ode triomphale involving over 1200 singers and musicians with Holmès writing the music, libretto and designing the costumes. The previous year, she wrote Ludus pro patria based on painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes' huge painting of spear-throwing practice of which the short La Nuit et l’Amour is a lushly romantic interlude. From sultry woodwind beginnings, the cellos emerged with a tender melody embellished by flute and harps. Gabel controlled the noble surges of sweeping strings in this rich sumptuous tapestry, Holmès keeping the music muscular and virile.

Wildschut gave a remarkable performance with the RSNO in February 2020 and she received a warm welcome back from the audience in the Usher Hall. Only 21, she brought new perspectives to Mendelssohn’s much-loved concerto, a work the orchestra, soloist and conductor know inside-out but played here with the extra frisson of the raw unpredictability of last-minute musical chemistry. Wildschut took a contemplative, restrained and refreshingly unshowy approach, pulling the audience right into the heart of the music, unafraid of the lingering pin-drop silences she created in her striking first movement cadenza. A wandering bassoon taking us into the slow movement, Wildschut’s golden warm tone and dreamy emotional depth shone through with clarity before bringing fizz to the rigours of the final Allegro. Gabel, always lithe and dynamic in response to the soloist, allowed his players to sparkle. Wildschut’s encore of the Sarabande from Bach Partita no. 1 had the audience in the palm of her hand.

Finally, Gabel brought a distinctly French orchestral palette in an exciting performance of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique. Based on the composer’s opium-clouded obsession with Irish actress Harriet Smithson, her theme, the ‘idée fixe’ peppers all five movements. Gabel elegantly phrased the atmospheric opening Rêveries driving the ensuing sharp and snappy accents in bracing contrast, the exhilarating series of dynamic surges in the strings giving way to golden violas before wrapping up the theme. The Waltz went with a tremendously stylish swing, but dark undercurrents were a presence. The Scène aux champs featured shepherd calls, haunting solos from cor anglais and offstage oboe. Yearning strings and bright woodwinds broadened out as the two percussionists threaded their way to join the two timpanists, four players creating the distant rolls of thunder. The heavy brass waited to unleash a blast in the graphic Marche au supplice, before the horrors of the Witches’ Sabbath took over, whole sections turning snarly with a thumping Dies irae, clanging bell and the mischievous E flat clarinet leading the witches’ round dance. It is always a thrilling work to hear, but it was immense fun to watch the sheer theatricality unfold.

It is almost a year to the day from first live classical performance in Scotland since Covid. To be able to hear a large orchestra again, musicians sharing desks and raising the roof with Berlioz shows how far we have come. I even believe real RSNO paper programmes are back next week – hooray!