BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Donald Runnicles continued their series of concerts for this season in Edinburgh on Sunday with a programme that featured Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture”, Sibelius’s “Violin Concerto” and “Symphony No. 7” and finally Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture”.

Both Beethoven overtures bookending this programme gave a lively note to begin and end on.  The “Coriolan Overture” is meant to accompany Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy of the same name, a work based on the same ancient Roman leader, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, as the eponymous Shakespeare tragedy with which the overture is often mistakenly associated. The main theme represents Coriolanus’s resolve to invade Rome and start a war, while the gentle second theme characterises his mother’s pleading against the idea.

The Orchestra’s performance was measured and precise, although at times it seemed too subdued for a work that was so tragic and violent, especially compared to other performances with which I am more familiar.  Compared to the strong brass and woodwinds, sometimes the string sections, particularly the violins, seemed weaker, although nevertheless delicate with their shimmering textures in the “Leonore Overture at the end of the performance.

This overture was written as the original overture for Beethoven’s only completed opera, Fidelio, and Leonore represents the eponymous heroine who disguises herself as a man to free her husband from the tyranny of a prison.  The piece was exemplary of Beethoven’s revolutionary and democratic sympathies, and the athletic flourish in the coda was a spectacular finale for the evening’s concert.

The Orchestra performed both of the Sibelius pieces with an outstanding attention to colour and texture.  These were pieces that were much more given over to the brass and woodwinds, and there were some really striking passages for the trombone in the symphony whose renditions by the orchestra were truly mystifying.  The symphony in particular was an intriguing piece as it is the last symphony that Sibelius wrote, and is a symphony in one movement.  It is fairly radical in its form, structure and treatment of tempi, turning upside down symphonic traditions dating all the way back to Haydn.

The violin concerto, with its lyrical themes, prolonged virtuoso passages and cadenzas, was an excellent showcase of soloist Guy Braunstein’s technical ability as well as sensitivity. His performance showed great energy as well as control, particularly in handling the much gentler themes in the second movement.

Following his performance of Sibelius, he demonstrated his sparkling wit with his own adaptation of Fritz Kreisler’s “Toy Soldier’s March, one in which the soldier was ‘a little drunk’.  This was a performance that had the audience in splits for the most part, with a clumsy yet vaulting marching theme featuring rapid pizzicato.

This concert in Edinburgh was following a well-received performance in Glasgow earlier in the week when the BBC SSO performed a similar programme, the only changes being Sibelius’s “Finlandia” and Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto” instead of the first two pieces.  Both the Glasgow concert and the Edinburgh one were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and are available on iPlayer.

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