Music review: RSNO & Ray Chen, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Not even a fire alarm and evacuation could dampen the fiery emotions in this performance from Ray Chen and the RSNO, writes David Kettle

RSNO & Ray Chen, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

Ray Chen could fill the Usher Hall with the power of his personality alone. And the Taiwanese-Australian violinist did just that, in fact, on Friday night, with the Sibelius Violin Concerto he performed with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

It wasn’t just Chen’s musical personality, either – though that was strikingly bold and confident on its own, attacking Sibelius’s writing with a white-hot intensity and a wide, rapid vibrato that bordered at times on a tremolo. There was also his warm engagement with the audience, most evident in his self-deprecating introduction to his encore, a blast through Paganini’s fiendish 21st Caprice.

Ray Chen performs with the RSNORay Chen performs with the RSNO
Ray Chen performs with the RSNO
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Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe it. But it was exhausting, too – not just in keeping up with Chen’s hot-blooded focus, but also in his unwaveringly fierce projection, his big sound, his high volume. The lyrical opening of his Paganini encore showed a performer more attuned to subtlety, light and shade, and a far wider range of attack and articulation – more of those qualities in his Sibelius might have provided a performance with more probing insights, if less overt showmanship.

The RSNO was on dramatic form, too, in a wonderfully supple, richly coloured account under Thomas Søndergård. Their opener – Lotta Wennäskoski’s Saariaho-esque Of Footprints And Light – was all about glittering, scintillating hues, and delivered with a nimble sense of fantasy that captured the music’s unpredictable swerves in mood and direction.

To close, Søndergård launched a beautifully lightfooted Dvořák Sixth Symphony, rich and smooth in the first movement’s grandeur, and with an appropriately furious energy whirling through the third movement “furiant” dance. A fire alarm and evacuation interrupted Søndergård’s buoyant bustle of a finale, but it couldn’t dampen the evening’s fiery emotions.