The frenetic enthusiasm which is part of the opening motif of StraussDon Juan – this upward striving fiery impulse of excitement – turned out to be symptomatic of this memorable concert of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, directed by Rafael Payare. Throughout the concert, the orchestra played with fervour and joy, and the audience at Leeds Town Hall was enthused. The programme started with Don Juan, one of Richard Strauss’ early symphonic poems. It vividly depicts the adventures of Don Juan, first and foremost his endeavours in the matter of love. In these sections, strings and woodwinds revelled in their fine and delicate melodies, while Payare, always quite agile on stage, carved out the long phrases and rising tension of the music.

Alisa Weilerstein © Jamie Jung
Alisa Weilerstein
© Jamie Jung
This sweeping performance was followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2 in G major. Unlike the more famous First Cello Concerto with its self-assured and insisting opening notes, this piece started with a highly contemplative and introverted cello solo, and it remained in this atmosphere for the most part of the first movement. American cellist Alisa Weilerstein had an outstandingly clear and well-articulated sound which she maintained even at virtuosic passages. Using little vibrato, her playing appeared very natural and direct and was yet – or rather therefore – of an intense expressivity. It seemed as if she was directly “speaking” with her instrument – an image which was to some extent supported by the fact that, at times, she sought immediate eye contact with the audience. Her “honest” and fragile tone conveyed a sense for the individual’s lamentation and loneliness in light of an overpowering reality, which may well be regarded as the other side of Shostakovich’s grand symphonic, massive, and often violent soundscapes. Towards the end of the first movement, this duality was impressively encapsulated in the dialogue between the relentless snare drum and the delicate pizzicati of the cello.

The second movement was no longer about reflective inwardness but released energy. Its rather droll but never too light-hearted tune was rendered by Weilerstein with vitality, while she handled the glissandi with a certain roughness that is already inherent in the melody. Meanwhile, she continued to communicate closely with the orchestra. Snare drum and horn signals heralded the finale, introducing a heterogeneous section which ranged from lyrical duets to march- and dance-like passages with the tambourine playing a prominent role. These passages were separated by a distinctive “classical” ending phrase that seemed to be strangely out of place within the often disharmonious context of Shostakovich’s music. That his second cello concerto has a musical richness to offer which cannot be grasped in a single category became apparent in this performance. After much cheering and applause, Weilerstein played the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C major as an encore.

The second half of the concert enclosed Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major. Although composed at approximately the same time as Strauss’ tone poem, an utterly different sound world was presented here, deeply situated in the Romantic idiom. Like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, this piece has its place in the line of pastoral music, and it is based on folk-like melodies, not without Dvořák’s distinctive melancholic undertone. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, performing and breathing as one body, was visibly inspired by Payare who elicited different shades of dynamic and timbre for the imaginative landscape. The pastoral character continued in the second movement, finding its epitome in the woodwinds’ imitation of birdsong. In the last two movements, the orchestra once more indulged in Dvořák’s picturesque melodies with notably bright colours in the brass section. With an astonishingly fast tempo, Payare and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra brought this symphony to an imposing end.