The Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s latest concert at Usher Hall was entitled “Dvořák Cello Concerto”, referring to the appearance of Giovanni Sollima to play this masterpiece. Strangely enough, it was not at all the best part of the concert. What the audience will remember for a long time is the tremendous Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, which was brilliantly conducted by Thomas Søndergård.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

Before the concerto was programed a work composed by the evening's soloist, Giovanni Sollima – “perhaps his best-known composition” according to the programme notes. Its French title Violoncelles, vibrez! (in English “Cellos, vibrate!”) seemed quite mysterious, in an attractive manner, suggesting it would consist of a musical reflection on the various sounds a cello could produce, on the expressive features which forge its personality. The ten-minute piece – written in 1993 for the 10th anniversary of the death of Antonio Janigro, Sollima’s teacher – was led by the two solo cellists instead of a conductor; a dialogue took place between the two soloists, and between them and the orchestra. The sound textures were based on repeated or long notes, which indeed resembled vibrations, waves, rustlings. In addition to this caressing, wavering background, the soloists explored the melodic line of their instruments, trying out intervals and exchanging them. The piece was absolutely consonant though no tonality was clearly established: harmony was moving all the time, even slightly, in a disturbing and seductive way. Rhythmic figures enhanced, giving life to a frantic dance in the second part which then disappeared in the final decrescendo. The audience loved the piece.

The two soloists for Violoncelles, vibrez! were Aleksei Kiseliov (principal cellist of the RSNO) and Giovanni Sollima. Only the latter remained to interpret Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. The long orchestral introduction was lively, heartily performed. When the cello entered, it took only a few seconds to notice that the sound of its different strings was very unequal, which resulted in notes sometimes nearly out of tune. Giovanni Sollima’s very impulsive playing was intended to convey all the emotional strength of the concerto, but was often excessive and used to veil imperfect tuning. However, in slow, melancholic phrases, Sollima deployed a beautiful lyricism: this is why the second movement was undoubtedly the one which came off best. In the third movement, the energy conveyed by the orchestra created a passionate dynamic which appeared perfectly suited for the atmosphere of this moment. Unfortunately, Sollima seemingly wanted to show that he was feeling more than everyone and understanding more the emotional streams in the music, so he was trying to conduct in the place of Thomas Søndergård (who remained imperturbable) and filled his playing with even more expressive effects. Honestly, it felt too much.

After the interval, we changed centuries and jumped in the 20th with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937). As early as the opening bars of the first movement, it was obvious that Søndergård has a clear vision of the piece, that he was constructing gigantic architecture with the help of the RSNO. The beginning was absolutely captivating, precisely depicting the different shades of darkness that Shostakovich music contains. Somehow, the symphony could be compared to a cathedral: it is very impressive on the outside, immense, but intimate on the inside, inducing introspection and meditation. Throughout, the orchestra played with great talent: dynamics were precise, contrasts were mastered, emotions subtly shaped. The woodwinds captured the work's sarcasm well. In the third movement Largo, the whole orchestra united to create a suspended world, a kind of representation of the unconscious mind. Immediately afterwards, it seemed as if a monster had been released onto the audience for the finale, like sacred forces suddenly awakening! The ending was grandiose, as jubilatory as can be. Superb!