“They really went for it full on, you got everything you wanted and hoped to hear, but it was never over the top…..terrific playing…..quite something!”
The RSNO’s Friday night Edinburgh concerts really set you up for the weekend, and last Friday’s cornucopia of delights was eagerly awaited: Bartok and Stravinsky, an orgy of brass, dissonance and full on orchestral razzmatazz. We were not disappointed.
There was much in the plots that drove the ballet suite parts of the programme that was descriptive writing of the louche – if not actually sordid – kind, not to mention the fecund. Robbers setting up a young girl as bait, consent to coition in order to effect the death of the punter, and Spring as the enduring symbol not just of birth, but of fertility, and finally the sacrifice of a virgin to appease, one suspects, not only the Gods but also senile and jealous Elders. No wonder the performances as ballets caused such a stir in the early part of the twentieth century.
First off was Bartok’s Suite from the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. As for the story, Google it for all the gory details, but suffice it to say the premiere in Cologne in 1926 (conducted by none less than the composer Erno Dohnanyi) caused catcalls, whistles, boos, stamping and a walk out by the clergy present, with the work being banned in a number of cities. Nothing could do more to promote the piece. As for the music, well, exciting is not a strong enough word, and what impressed me is how the band got into the groove of this really quite demanding work straight away: dissonant, chaotic, resemblant of street life, some pointers to Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. The lilting, seductive melodies supplanted by raucous, glorious trombones and brass in general, with the strings coming in at the end and taking us away like furies. Wow! A great start to the evening, twenty minutes of exquisite bombast.
There followed Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto played by Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno on a 1762 Gagliano. The Concerto as a musical form is often compared as either a contest or a love affair between soloist and orchestra, with early examples (e.g. Vivaldi) featuring the soloist as first among equals, and later composers taking the soloist more out front. This latter approach is inherently more difficult with instruments such as the violin and guitar that find it difficult through volume limitations to stand out as a piano or trumpet would, and this limitation is the more obvious in later, more heavily orchestrated works, of which the Stravinsky is certainly one. Only in the second and final movements did the soloist really come to the fore, with a lightly supported melody in the second, and a lively toccata in the fourth enabling her to do so. Elsewhere conductor Thomas Sondergard was doing what he could to restrain the orchestra without rendering them inaudible. This also resulted in too soft playing from the clarinet so unfortunately the performance as a whole of this underestimated, supposedly austere work never quite satisfied. The audience nonetheless delighted in it and sent the players off to the interval with enthusiastic applause ringing in their ears.
The last work of the evening was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a brilliant choice of programming given the glorious Spring day that was now drawing to a close. The playing here was absolutely first class with spectacularly clear and well articulated woodwind – not at all outdone by the “heavier” brass – playing with real clean attack and verve; but by the time the work was over you knew that everyone in the 105 piece band had had their moment in the sun, from the ten timpani, three huge Wagner tubas, seven trumpets, eight horns, washboard, rattle, tam-tam etc. – get it? The strings soared gloriously and one was reminded that, as is so often the case, although this sounded like it was chaotic, it is in fact a highly structured, cleverly orchestrated work that raised the roof and actually caused a riot when it premiered in Paris in 1913. One hundred years on its excitement and sheer jaw-dropping daring nature does not pale and the RSNO gave the sort of performance a seasoned concertgoer loves. They really went for it full-on and you got everything you wanted and hoped to hear, but it was never over the top. Terrific playing with the structure and discipline that strong composition enables. Quite something!
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 May)
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