RSNO: BENEDETTI & OUNDJIAN (Usher Hall: 18 March ’16

“Full on enthusiasm, lightness of touch and an abundance of joy”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding.

It was a bit like getting ready to hear Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, The Symphony of a Thousand. For there were musicians, and musical instruments, seemingly everywhere. Six timpani, two bass drums, two harps, five French horns, a bass tuba, and I reckoned a hundred young choristers, all dressed in black, sitting neatly at the back. Clearly we were in for quite a show.

And it was a show full of contrasts, spaced over almost 200 years of composition, yet all compellingly complementary. The beautiful austerity of James MacMillan; the lush, joyful optimism of Hector Berlioz; and the intense twentieth century romanticism of Karyl Szymanowski.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Little Mass for children’s chorus was “little” only in the sense of limiting itself to the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei and scoring it for young voices. It is a work of substance, first performed in Liverpool almost a year ago and premiered in Scotland with us. A piece of some drama: ghoulish, austere, dissonant and utterly beautiful. Undoubtedly a difficult work to perform, the RSNO Junior Chorus gave an excellent account of themselves in a composition many senior choirs would struggle with. Difficult intonations, tricky entries and fiercely challenging harmonies were sung with confidence and precision, with the cherry on top of the composer coming on to the platform to receive the applause and rightly point to the choir’s laudable achievement. Promising start.

A few minutes later on came Scotland’s musical sweetheart, Nicola Benedetti, resplendent in what looked like a Dolce and Gabbana figure-hugging long black dress with signature cascading curls hairstyle. It is a credit to her playing that one soon forgot such superficial accoutrements. Szymanowski and Benedetti have history, of the good kind. His first violin concerto was the piece that won her Young Musician of the Year in 2004 and her recording premiere for Deutsche Grammophon a year later. Tonight we heard her play the second concerto, a more complex work with a lot of writing in the higher register. Benedetti gave it everything and we got it all back. The young woman combines a phenomenal technique with extraordinary feeling; her 1717 ‘Gariel’ Stradivari more than responding to what she asked of it as it approaches its 300th birthday. Szymanowski’s intelligent and well-rounded orchestration gave the band ample opportunity to support and interplay with the solo part in this break-less twenty-five minute piece in the twentieth century romantic genre. Fine playing throughout. Kindly, this young woman who has absolutely no side, treated us to a Bach sarabande for an encore, considerately thanking us for our applause and announcing what she was going to play.

There is often a slight feeling of flatness as one dutifully returns to the auditorium for the second, usually symphonic part of the programme after the glamour and fireworks of the soloist and concerto have gone. Peter Oundjian and the RSNO were having none of this and brought Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to light in a way that I have rarely heard it played, with full on enthusiasm, lightness of touch and an abundance of joy. More a symphonic poem than a symphony, there is a danger of the brass dominating, but Oudjian let everybody have their say: a beautiful intertwining of a very exposed but very well played cor anglais and timpani in the third movement; glorious, roaring brass in the fourth, and almost a fairground cacophony in the final fifth movement, the strings being given their head and the conductor, who one felt was liberating rather than directing the orchestra, ensuring balance, never vulgarity, and not once committing the cardinal sin of “looking encouragingly at the brass”. We left the auditorium chuckling.


Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 18 March)

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