Music review: RSNO & Nicola Benedetti, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In this Scottish premiere performance of Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto, Nicola Benedetti was visibly at ease with the piece’s unrelenting technical demands, and totally in tune with German-born conductor David Afkham, writes Ken Walton

RSNO & Nicola Benedetti, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ****

Fate has twice delayed the RSNO’s planned Scottish premiere of Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto, which it co-commissioned with three other worldwide orchestras. Firstly in 2021, Covid was the culprit, the streamed distribution of the London premiere putting the kibosh on a separate RSNO relay. Then, in 2022, the concerto’s dedicatee Nicola Benedetti had to cancel a rematch due to injury. On Saturday, however, Scotland finally witnessed it live.

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It’s a substantial work, five movements rolled into one marathon entity, which Simpson furnishes with almost excessive enthusiasm. Opening to a kind of warped rhapsodic awakening, flashes of sonic euphoria warn of the ensuing vigorous, sometimes tetchy Dance tableaux, building to an orgy of seismic complexity. The central Andante Amoroso, as fiercely heated as hauntingly acquiescent, acts as the pivotal transition towards an undernourished Cadenza and hurtling Finale, its incendiary textures now touched by the sparkly spell of John Adams.

Benedetti powered through her performance, visibly at ease with its unrelenting technical demands, totally in tune with German-born conductor David Afkham, who extracted lightning precision from the RSNO. Ultimately, though, this is a work that tries too hard. A judicious edit, letting light into an often over-crowded score, would help reveal the clarity and purpose that, I suspect, lurks within.

Clarity and purpose were also the driving factors in Afkham’s revealing interpretation of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. In his RSNO debut he had the players eating insatiably out of his hand. What appeared initially to be a slow, dry opening transpired to be something far more sinister and revelatory. The detail was forensic, but the overall effect was startling, making the brusqueness of the Allegretto all the more chilling, the Largo unnervingly timeless, and the emotional void of the Finale brutally traumatising.