Tom Redmond, presenting this concert live for Radio 3, described the all-French programme as an evening of “opium-induced lust, violence, lonely shepherds, death and unrequited desire”. Indeed, all the music was bursting with vivid tales and images, but it is in the telling that we remember the best stories, the ones that creep right under our skin and stay with us.

Matthias Pintscher © Andrea Medici
Matthias Pintscher
© Andrea Medici

Watching Matthias Pintscher, the BBC Scottish’s Artist-in-Association, conjure the music before our eyes was spellbinding, like drawing us up close to the fire on a dark night. Pintscher used the whole podium, toes right on the left edge to direct the violins, then right for cellos and violas (arranged on the outside), his eyes scanning the players continuously, and his intentions crystal clear.

Maurice Maeterlink’s tragedy Pelléas and Mélisande inspired Debussy’s famous opera, but Gabriel Fauré set incidental music for the play when it was performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, and adapted this into this attractive orchestral suite of gentle tunes. The Prélude started quietly in the strings, but budding passions soon rose into lush harmonies before fading back into silence. A delightful vignette of Mélisande at her spinning wheel with horns and woodwind over ever-flowing tumble of notes in the violins was followed by a showcase Sicilenne for flute, a lovely performance from Rosemary Eliot in this, her final concert after over 30 years with the orchestra. The funereal “Death of Mélisande” completed the work which finished in lingering silence after an anguished climax.

Making his first appearance in Scotland, one of Spain’s most exciting young new talents, pianist Javier Perianes is a player of growing international reputation. His poetic interpretation of Camille Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no. 5, “The Egyptian”, completely won over the Glasgow audience. The concerto was mostly inspired by the composer’s visit to Egypt and – while deliberately non-Wagnerian – it looks forward to a jazz age in parts. Guiding us through the three movements, Perianes demonstrated flamboyance and utter enjoyment as he painted the exact French light and shade required, ending in a helter-skelter of brilliance. The crowd brought him back several times to take his bows, and we were rewarded by a haunting, meltingly beautiful performance of Grieg’s Nocturne Op.54 no. 4.

And so to the big event, Berlioz's epic Symphonie fantastique, composed when he was only 27 and infatuated by actress Harriet Smithson. It is an astonishing work, breaking symphonic convention with the idée fixe running through all five movements and ahead of its time in harmonies and style. It is a symphony which starts off conventionally with “Réveries”, which Pintscher took quietly at first, but whipped up the tension by drawing great sweeps of sound across the strings bottom to top. In an engaging pre-performance talk, it was explained that harps have been used in Hollywood scores to depict dream sequences, but Berlioz got there first with his two harps introducing us to the opium-hazed “Un bal”One of the many memorable moments in this work is the theatrical calling between the cor anglais onstage and a far-off oboe behind the scenes, magically done first time round, and so sinister at the end, when the cor anglais is answered by far-off thunder, here thrillingly created by four percussionists on two timpani sets. The thunder stayed for the start of the “Marche au supplice” when suddenly the players jolted back into life with menacing footsteps in the strings and mockingly triumphal trumpets blasting the hero’s journey to the guillotine. The final scene at the Witches Sabbath is a box of diabolical delights, from sinewy, bendy notes from the flutes and horns, olympian passages for bassoons, to two tubas blasting out the Dies irae with offstage bells. Like any good storyteller, Pintscher had held back in the first movements as he took time to define the moods of hope, longing and despair and so bringing an utter terror to the final symphonic fireworks.

On each visit, I am always impressed by the acoustic in the City Halls in Glasgow. It is not a huge concert hall, yet its shoebox shape and coffered ceiling make it a really exciting venue to hear a live orchestra. From the monumental last movements of the Berlioz to the tender solo piano of Javier Perianes, the sound was warm and distinct. A thoroughly enjoyable evening was rounded off by a presentation of flowers to departing flautist Rosemary Eliot, playing her last Symphonie Fantastique with the BBC Scottish, a great finish and we wish her well.

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