This was a heart-warming concert, and the sound that warmed my heart the most didn’t even come from the Usher Hall stage. Covid rules in Scotland have been a lot stricter than elsewhere in the UK, and this was the first concert in nearly two years that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has sold without social distancing. The hall was far from sold out – it rarely is – but there was something unusually lovely at seeing the stalls full of people sitting cheek by jowl, and the sheer volume of the applause in the first break made me catch my breath. Over the last two years I’ve been conditioned to accept first silence, then small pockets of appreciation with big gulfs in between. It still feels like we’re a long distance from sold out audiences and choral belters, but we’re heading in the right direction.

Steven Osborne in rehearsals with the RSNO
© RSNO

Of course, the music was deliciously warming too, not least because it was a home team in more ways than one. Not only was the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto an Edinburgh lad, Steven Osborne, but the orchestra played the whole concert without a conductor. Instead Sharon Roffman directed from the leader’s chair, something the orchestra was once forced to do due to a conductor cancellation, back in May 2019, but that was such a success that they now do so voluntarily.

And rightly so. Roffman made the stage her own by, for example, getting the musicians to stand instead of sit and, using natural timpani and trumpets. She directed each piece cleanly, without being ostentatious, and in some moments lacking a conductor felt like a positive advantage. The musicians of the RSNO are natural listeners, but in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, for example, they had no choice but to communicate with one another even more cleanly, and that allowed them to pick faster tempi than I’d normally have expected. Indeed, the finale was dangerously speedy when you consider that there was no one with a stick to hold it together, but it worked because they leant into one another and trusted each other for support.

The playing itself was terrific, too, with bright brass, clean strings and silky winds, especially in the second movement, which felt more Andante con moto than Adagio. I also loved the delicate upward-reaching flicks that the violins managed for the third movement’s Trio, a beautiful detail in a movement whose Scherzo element had a likeable swagger.

Sharon Roffman and the RSNO
© Sally Jubb

The orchestra also provided lovely support in the concerto, with a gorgeous sense of swell in the first movement and clipped, precise strings in the second. Osborne’s business-like way with the opening made me wonder whether his approach would be rather detached, but in the event his performance was personable and graceful. Even the sweeping scales of the development had a lovely legato to them, and the cadenza, while urgent and driven, dissolved into a coda of exquisite tenderness.

I had less love for David Fennessy’s Hirta Rounds. Commissioned for the Munich Chamber Orchestra which stipulated that they wanted an un-conducted piece, Fennessy used the loneliness of St Kilda, far out in the Atlantic, as inspiration, and there’s something compelling about the way he uses a small group of string instruments, quietly scraping in the void, as a mirror of isolation in a vast expanse. It’s very static, however, and could have done with being half of its 15-minute length. Still, it showcased as much as anything how closely these musicians listen to one another. Fennessy’s piece doesn’t have a time signature, so the musicians could only play their line when they knew their predecessor had finished. For that on its own, they deserved their final bow.

****1