There is nothing quite like an all-Beethoven programme for filling a large concert hall. Last night’s offering from the RSNO in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall was ample proof of this, with hardly a spare seat anywhere in the house. Given that the music was already so familiar, is there any other factor that might lend additional appeal? The big-name soloists and conductors must be one such – although for many concert-goers the lure of the unfamiliar might be equally tempting. This was definitely the case in the choice of conductor, Dima Slobodeniouk. Although he is well known in Europe and Scandinavia (though born and trained in Moscow, he lives in Finland), the name is not well known in Scotland. What does he bring to the stage that we have not seen or heard before? Firstly, we must bear in mind that he is no mean violinist himself and knows how to get exactly what he wants from the strings. The orchestra delivered a full range of appropriate colours, from a barely audible pianissimo on one hair at the point of the bow to a lush sonority when required. Playing the same programme in Glasgow and Perth has also given conductor and orchestra every chance to understand each other.

Dima Slobodeniouk © Marco Borggreve
Dima Slobodeniouk
© Marco Borggreve

This particular orchestra has sometimes seemed the epitome of dour, often greeting the audience’s applause without cracking a smile, but on this occasion there was a much greater sense that the conductor had them “on side” than in previous RSNO concerts I have attended. The advertised soloist, Rudolf Buchbinder, was unwell, so the last-minute substitute, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, was a surprise too. His recordings are well received, but this was the first time most of the audience had had the opportunity to hear him live.

Beginning with the Leonore Overture no. 3, we were off to a firm start. The falling figure at the opening was a first taste of the hushed but substantial dynamic that went on to characterise the rest of the concert. The subsequent blast from the whole orchestra was therefore all the more effective. When the offstage trumpet resounded from behind the auditorium, the effect was tingling. There was much turning of heads to try and locate the player. The closing bars of this work can sound messy in less-than-professional hands, but precision was the order of the day and the conclusion was suitably triumphal.

Some soloists are larger than life, others more restrained. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet radiated composure and assurance. The opening tutti of Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor was refined in an almost Mozartian way, despite the dramatic potential of the key and its obvious relation to the Fifth Symphony. The soloist’s first entry made a startling contrast to this contained introduction, as he hammered out the bass chords. The way the orchestra accompanied him made it clear that they were listening not only to his playing but also to each other. This was not going to be a rushed performance, but one in which we could savour every nuance: the sparkling cadenzas, the delicious dialogue between flute and bassoon in the slow movement, the rubato within phrases that nevertheless maintained the rhythmic pulse. The applause that greeted the final movement was no less enthusiastic from the orchestra than it was from the audience. Everybody heartily approved, and a movement from the E flat major Sonata, Op. 31 no. 3 was a welcome encore. During the interval, Monsieur Bavouzet did a roaring trade in the foyer, selling his CDs, before returning to the auditorium with the rest of us for the second half.

Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, “Eroica” has been the subject of countless books, essays and even a TV film. It is a watershed moment in the history of music. And yet at key points, this performance failed to thrill. Notwithstanding, there was much to delight the ear. Full honours must go to the Principal Oboe, German Diaz, who melted the slow movement with absolutely ravishing playing. There was attention to detail in the way that repeated notes became more substantial without growing any louder during quiet bars. Add to this in the third movement the marvel of 50-plus bows bouncing in unison with exactly the right amount of daylight between each stroke, and some beautiful flute solos. However, the overall effect was too straight-laced to convey the excitement inherent in the work. The horns – and the trumpets – should not be dainty; they must have a rasp in the voice that carries. When it mattered, the performance lacked a sense of raw emotion: that moment when a lump forms in the throat, when the hairs rise on the back of the neck.

At Bachtrack, we don’t award half-stars in grading concerts, but this one fell firmly between three and four. It was extraordinary to see a familiar orchestra respond so differently to a new conductor. Equally, the chance to hear a soloist for the first time and revel in such perceptive playing are moments to treasure. As a package, however, it was rather like a menu without seasoning; satisfyingly filling but short of memorable taste.

***11