Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Olari Elts | City Halls, Glasgow | Rating: ****
For a concert culminating in what is undoubtedly classical music’s best-known piece, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s splendid evening under Estonian conductor Olari Elts, pictured, still had the power to surprise. From the propulsive da-da-da-dum with which Elts kicked off his Beethoven Fifth – even before the audience’s applause had died down – it was an energetic, gloriously vivid account, driven and urgent. But what made it really special was Elts’s remarkable handling of the orchestral texture, exquisitely balanced to revealing effect, so that you heard things you’d swear were never there before – but thankfully, never feeling in the slightest calculated.
More surprising, though, were the Symphony’s wonderfully inventive bedfellows in the concert’s first half. Testament by Australian composer Brett Dean, the concert’s ear-tweaking opener, is all about Beethoven, specifically the crisis brought on by his encroaching deafness, conveyed in jagged, volatile music, or his waning hearing itself cruelly conjured by the strings playing with hard-to-hear, rosin-less bows.
But the piece also looked forward to the power and determination that, despite Beethoven’s condition, would inspire music like the Fifth Symphony – and it got a confident, committed performance from the SCO and Elts, brimming with conviction.
In between, more unflinching staring at despair in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, but in a remarkable, pared-down version for lower strings, clarinets, horns and harp by Dean’s compatriot James Ledger, and sung by Elts’s compatriot, bass Ain Anger ,with supple drama and a voice so powerful it seemed to make City Halls’ foundations shake.
It was an evening of high emotion, occasionally deep despair, but it ended in a blaze of light.