RSNO: Remmereit, Bryan. Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling, Ravel. (Usher Hall: 3 Feb ’17)

The Lark Ascending

“In Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The RSNO chose interesting, offbeat fare for their Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert on Friday night, by way of complete contrast to what will be an immensely popular Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky melange this coming week. Good for them, and I am sure that the great man, who brought so much to the RSNO in his extraordinary twenty-five year tenure and yet died at the relatively young age of 68, would have thoroughly approved.

The first piece was not without controversy: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending transposed for flute by the RSNO’s Principal Flautist, and soloist on the night, Katharine Bryan. This well known work – indeed, it is number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (make of that what you will) – while for some overexposed, is to me almost sacred. I first heard it as a schoolboy played in a concert in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire by one of my peers, Richard Deakin, who went on to teach music at the Royal Academy and found the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square. An early summer evening by the Thames with the fading sun streaming through the Abbey’s stained glass windows … and the piece moved onto my spiritual and emotional hard drives for ever.

To transpose it to flute had me and a number of others worried. Yet for me, full of reservation, it was a triumph. The warmth and roundness of the flautist’s timbre brought a new dimension to the work outwith the capacity of the violin. Bryan’s playing was exquisite: her control of her breathing in long passages extraordinary, her phrasing superb, her control and precision utterly convincing. So much so that I shall buy the recording. Now there’s a compliment in this age of streaming and downloads.

Composer Martin Suckling came on next to introduce his world premiere performance of our next piece,  The White Road. Interesting as this prologue was, it later became clear  – as our flautist returned  in a shimmering white dress rather than her earlier red version –  that this was a fill in. No matter, it gave the next quite difficult fifteen minutes some context.

Notwithstanding the composer’s aspirations the work essentially was a back and forth between sharp musical bites from the flute echoed by percussion, with minimal brass, wind and string support and unconvincing body bops by the soloist to accentuate the to and fro with little added value from the microtones. Melody went missing until the end of the work and I found it unremarkable. Fairly typical of the modern genre, I suppose, but it really only came into itself at its close.

Our nerves were soothed by Bryan’s blissful rendering of Massenet’s Thais as an encore, accompanied only by harp. Luscious.

Following the interval we were treated to Daphnis and Chloe Suites No’s 1 and 2. This piece is a conductor’s nightmare in terms of its fluidity and apparent lack of time signature, so it would be timely to point out that the baton was being held on the night by Arild Remmereit standing in for the indisposed Peter Oundijan. A fine job he made of it (and for the rest of the evening, too). You never felt the orchestra were out of control and their disciplined playing impressed. The work opened with a flute solo and lo and behold, there was Katharine Bryan again, now in black dress, back in her familiar principal flute’s chair. The Danse Guerriere at the conclusion of the first suite showed real verve and the Lever de Jour opening Suite No 2 was well realised and convincing. Remmereit got everything he could out of the band in the Danse Generale which ended our evening with a – or rather, several – bangs.

So in conclusion,  this was a concert that entertained with the familiar, challenged with new takes on familiar themes, and also with new material. Sir Alexander would have been proud of his orchestra’s playing and in Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 January)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (Lyceum: 13 – 28 January ’17)

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“It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Do you approach Hanging Rock expecting to see corsets hanging in mid-air? Well, in which case you will have noted that the excised last chapter of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book provides this astonishing feature. Either that or you’re wandering in a Dreamtime of your own (adolescent) imagination, set about with eucalyptus trees and hot flushes from Peter Weir’s 1975 screenplay. Now here comes the wake-up call, a dramatic restorative, if you will.  It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks.

This Picnic at Hanging Rock is a stylish outing, to say the least, from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. That’s Perth, Western Australia, and that’s a collaboration over 2170 miles, but who’s counting? This is Tom Wright’s adaptation but as in Lindsay’s story distance is of no consequence and time is suspended, ‘running out and spooling in’, between grey black panelling topped with brushwood. No rock is visible and there is no interval.

There is thunder and a blackout and five schoolgirls suddenly appear, side by side across the stage, in immaculate uniform ready for Speech Day 2017. They tell the story, their shared creepy story, of what happened on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, when a daytrip from Appleyard College went to Hanging Rock and four girls and one teacher disappear. One of them, Irma, is later found, close to death, and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It is, at its opening, a composed and perfectly disciplined account that you realise is the sure and safe way to rationalise the irrational, the unknown and the dangerous. It is a long introduction but necessary, for in this telling you understand that an ancient landmark is an abcess to be swabbed away for the sake of white Australians everywhere and young ladies from proper schools can never be too English. Whatever happened, dear, it’s really too, too bad that it happened in the state of Victoria.

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There are parasols to ward off the sun, a grand aspidistra to maintain respectability, and – figuratively – there must be ‘lino, asphalt, and axminster’ to hide the red earth. Mrs Appleyard, founder and Headmistress, remembers Bournemouth but dreams of the  intimate touch of her (?dead) husband. Irma, returns to the school before leaving for a stay in England and is viciously attacked by girls suffocating in their own propriety. Director Matthew Lutton works to challenge perceptions: angling the girls in contorted positions, immobilizing their movements in successive freeze-frame ‘shots’, subjecting the narrative to enigmatic surtitles over frequent blackouts. How else to refresh, even subvert, what has become an almost mythological text, complete with panpipes?

It is actually without humour – an unusual and tense achievement over eighty-five minutes – but the performances of the several characters are still appealingly unaffected and distinct. Amber McMahon cross-dresses as the young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert, but there’s no caricature here. Elizabeth Nabben is Mrs Appleyard and builds a fragile role to its last despairing moment; Nikki Shiels suffers as Irma, whose fate it is to keep her nightmares under control, whilst Arielle Gray and Harriet Gordon-Anderson are in supporting roles that they make important.

Is an audience bushwhacked by theatrical device and intelligence? I think so, but it is performed with considerable respect for its source and the script is smart, spare and ingenious. Technically it works a treat with outstanding lighting and sound and this is probably one production where the ‘best’ seats, for the best effect, are probably at the front of the Upper Circle and you should definitely read the Director’s and Writer’s programme notes after the show because they’re too helpful. The play’s the thing.

[FYI. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play at Hanging Rock on Saturday 11 February. You simply cannot keep a good place down!]

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 January)

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Edinburgh Quartet, Beethoven (St Andrew’s and St George’s West: 11 Jan. ’17)

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“The Edinburgh Quartet have some magic dust around them that creates real homogeneity and synergy”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine was going to Wednesday’s Edinburgh Quartet Rush Hour Concert, and “ticked’ that I was going too. “They’re playing the Rasumovsky Quartet”, he enthused, virtually. “Which one?”, I replied. “Eh?”, came the rejoinder. For not many people know that there are in fact three, all commissioned by Count Andres Rasumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna, with the stipulation that they should contain Russian themes. Well actually, the one we heard, the third and arguably the finest, didn’t, but it contained an awful lot of interesting new approaches to the genre.

The Edinburgh Quartet bring a pleasingly creative approach to their programming and tonight we heard from Edinburgh Artist Erik Petrie, who was working alongside them this week at their Residency at the Ocean Terminal and just hours earlier had completed a magnificent, colourful violin scroll canvas which the Quartet proudly displayed. Second violinist Gordon Bragg discussed the intriguing relationship between quartet and artist with Erik before the concert started.

The Edinburgh Quartet have recently adopted a practice of having a theme for their concert series, and the theme for this early part of the New Year is “Revolution”. For certain, the works by Mozart (French Revolution) and Shostakovich (post Russian Revolution and very influenced by Stalin) could be deemed as appropriately covered by this banner, but for Beethoven in 1808 it was stretching a point, other than that the Rasumovsky Quartet, Op.59 No.3, is certainly revolutionary in construction.

The first movement Allegro opens with a series of diminished sevenths punctuated with silences that set off an atmosphere of wonder and mystery, resolving into C major and we are away in more conventional quartet form. Quite a shock for its audience then and quite a surprise today. Comparisons and styles can legitimately be made to `Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet.

The Andante con moto employed a lot of pizzicato and if Beethoven was trying to persuade his sponsor that the quartet contained a Russian theme it would be here, with its intimations of folk song.

Come the third movement Allegro we found ourselves listening to a cheerful minuet, yet just as we were beginning to relax and take it easy we barnstormed into the final Presto at breakneck speed. The players did not make one slip in these very demanding passages which they delivered with real verve. One felt the spirit of troubled Beethoven, hounded by deafness and in the process of beginning to admit it to his brothers and close friends. On the early sketch of this movement he had written “Let your deafness be a secret no longer – not even in art.”

Yet again, despite a number of personnel changes, the Edinburgh Quartet have some magic dust around them that creates real homogeneity and synergy, giving the impression they had been playing together for years. We had a relaxed yet assured, inspired performance. The tight, together playing we have become accustomed to, and sheer listen-to pleasure, was joyfully experienced tonight as always.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 11 January)

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RSNO, Prieto and others (Usher Hall: 2 Dec’16)

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“…this was a strong, conviction performance of a great work with some fine playing and singing”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

“An opera in ecclesiastical robes” (Von Bulow”). “Bulow has blundered. It is a work of genius” (Brahms). But Von Bulow was not necessarily being pejorative. So what if the Verdi Requiem is an opera in ecclesiastical robes? This perennial argument does have some merit in criticism of the work. I see nothing wrong in celebrating a requiem in operatic style, but it is the structure and intervals within the requiem format that get in the way of the flow of the work. It is a series of seven moments, apart from the enjoyably more substantial Dies Irae and Libera Me. To me, its enjoyment is entirely secular. If I want a spiritual or religious high, I turn to Faure, or Mozart or, indeed, Brahms. If I want music to die for (le mot juste?), then it’s Verdi.

Friday night’s wonderful performance by the RSNO, RSNO Chorus and four soloists: soprano Evelina Dobraceva, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, tenor Edgaras Montvidas and Bass-Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann – under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto was at times spoilt by the audience. On the whole I have a lot of time for the RSNO followers, who do not whoop or whistle, do not clap between movements, and allow a respectful interval at the end of a piece before applauding, but on Friday they coughed and they croaked as and when they pleased, spluttering just a few moments into the desperately fragile pianissimo Requiem. Surely they could have held back at least until the forte passages. I relished – in the fortissimo Dies Irae – the thought of drowning them out myself. This may be the price you pay for live music in winter, but perhaps the Usher Hall could print a few useful tips on muting the effect, as they do in the programme notes at the Royal Festival Hall.

Enough of the audience and on to the artists. The 120 strong chorus managed to keep precision and intensity in their pianissimo entrance, and sang throughout with discipline, force and feeling. Sopranos never harsh, well balanced between the four parts and every entry spot on; basses clear, and good mid range from the altos and tenors. They sang the Dies Irae and Libera Me as well as I have ever heard it sung. Bearing in mind the size of their catchment area this pays a real compliment to their talent and training.

The orchestra were also well up to the task and played with feeling and élan. The “stereo” effect of placing two trumpets up in the gods at the back of the hall in reply to the others on the stage in the Tuba Mirum worked very effectively – it doesn’t always – and it was a revelation to hear, again in the Dies Irae, a double fortissimo, that’s four fortes, without any blaring or coarseness.

The casting of the four soloists from America, Lithuania, Germany and Russia, coming together for a couple of gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh shows what an international world classical music is, and how Scotland is right up there with the best of them in its ability to attract such talent. The work is not easy on the soloists, especially when singing with each other in duet format. Individual soloists sang well with the orchestra but the two sopranos struggled to sound homogenous in the Recodare, Jesu Pie in the Dies Irae but had got more used to each other in the kinder Agnus Dei. One felt bass-baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmman wasn’t entirely comfortable in the Mors Stupebit and Confutatis maledictus in the Dies Irae, but he entranced us later in the Lux Aeterna. Their quartet for the Offerterio worked well, and soprano Evelina Dobraceva thrilled us in the concluding Libera Me where she really nailed it.

Overall this was a strong, conviction performance of a great work with some fine playing and singing with just a few issues of coordination and integration between soloists, which is always a risk with a live performance of a work that really puts them on the spot. There was a respectable pause before enthsiastic applause broke out, showing that the audience’s heart was in the right place, even if their fitful larynxes were not.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 2 December)

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lyceum: 26 Nov – 31 Dec.’16)

Photo credit Drew Farrell. (L-R) David Carlyle as Gryphon, David James Kirkwood as cast, Jess Peet as Alice, Gabriel Quigley as Queen of Hearts, John Macaulay as King, Alan Francis as Duchess, & Tori Burgess as cast.

Photo credits: Drew Farrell.
(L-R) David Carlyle as Gryphon, David James Kirkwood as cast, Jess Peet as Alice, Gabriel Quigley as Queen of Hearts, John Macaulay as King, Alan Francis as Duchess, & Tori Burgess as cast.

“This particular and generous invitation to Wonderland should be accepted at once”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published Britain also got its first speed limits for horseless vehicles. The Locomotive Act of 1865 meant no more than 4mph in the countryside and 2mph in towns, together with a red warning flag. No doubt Edinburgh Council is heading that way again, and for good reason, but that does not stop Anthony Neilson’s version of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense classic from being very welcome, fast and surprising.

‘A large rabbit-hole under the hedge’ it has to be, for how else could a very round White Rabbit (WR) go down it? Wowza! It is some exit! Children gasped. And ‘in another moment’ down went Alice after WR, feet first, ‘never once considering how in the world she was to get out again’. No worries – as Alice plummets towards Australia – remember that this is a ten year old on approach to Wonderland.

 The Lyceum is bedecked with small hot air balloons and a fluttering kite. Fairground music plays on and up goes the title in lights, announcing the main attraction as part gaiety theatre, part fond and exuberant dream. It is all, quite naturally, larger than life. Wait until you see the size of the Duchess’s baby. And those arms! Surreal. The Cheshire Puss grins from within the disc of the sun, Alice gets stuck inside WR’s des res and there’s alarming talk of Giant Child infestation. Set a jumbo tea service upon designer Francis O’Connor’s super revolve, press the ‘On’ button and see the glittering tea leaves fly …

(L-R) Jess Peet as Alice, Isobel McArthur as Dormouse, David Carlyle as March Hare, & Tam Dean Burn as the Mad Hatter

(L-R) Jess Peet as Alice, Isobel McArthur as Dormouse, David Carlyle as March Hare, & Tam Dean Burn as the Mad Hatter

It may, at the close, be all Victorian and ‘lingering in the golden gleam’ – and that’s ok, as Carroll admired Tennyson after all (& photographed him) – but in terms of performance and effect the surface quality is lively and attractive. There’s nothing adrift here; no pool of tears either. Instead Alice (Jess Peet) is pretty contemporary: sure-footed and unfazed, arguably more midshipman in the Home Fleet than a dreamy little girl from Oxford, but resolute with crystal diction and a level gaze. Tam Dean Burn plays the Hatter as mad as mad can be without terrifying a young audience and he has maniacal fun with the safety curtain. Mordant humour might well be the preserve of the Welsh and – for me – David Carlyle’s glum Gryphon, marvellously at odds with his colourful plumage, is the co-star of the show. He (and not the Knave) stands accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts – surely a preposterous charge, for who could refuse to follow his courtly lead in the Lobster Quadrille?

As wholesome children’s picture books go The Very Hungry Caterpillar is up there with the best and Eric Carle’s creation, unlike Carroll’s, does not smoke a hookah but then it has long been observed that you ‘Do not look to ‘Alice’s Adventures’ for knowledge in disguise’. Quite what you do look for is your crazy, delighted, business and it might even, with a lot of luck, be the same as a child’s vision. A recipe for mock-turtle soup as pepper spray won’t appeal but otherwise this particular and generous invitation to Wonderland should be accepted at once, not least because no hedgehog was harmed in its production.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 December)

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SCO. Egarr. (Queen’s Hall: 10 Nov. ‘16)

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Etienne-Nicholas Mehul (1763 – 1817)

“Richard Egarr skilfully coaxed every nuance out of the brilliantly orchestrated score so that the music was allowed to speak for itself in all its tranquillity and serenity.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Musicians will have their little jokes. The opening of HMS Pinafore starts with a drum roll. People think it is the introduction to the National Anthem and stand. The orchestra continues into the overture. Members of the audience sit back down in a mixture of moods. Most take the joke. It is, after all, Operetta. The Edinburgh Quartet, much lauded in these pages, do all their tuning off stage and get straight into the work when entering. SCO Conductor Richard Egarr took it a step further on Thursday night by starting Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture before the audience had finished clapping him on. I loved it. I noted that the Edinburgh Quartet’s second violin, Gordon Bragg, was sharing the front desk of the seconds on the evening in question. Must have felt at home.

The SCO and Egarr treated us to a confident and gutsy rendition of Prometheus with Egarr’s left hand so active it was as if the orchestra was a clock he was winding up. They certainly kept a fast tempo. This was a colourful, jolly opening number with trumpet and horn not holding back. “Was that lively enough for you?” Egarr asked as he chatted between numbers. You bet.

From research, I had found that the little known Etienne Mehul wrote his First Symphony at the same time as Beethoven wrote his Pastoral. Richard Egarr informed us that as it was being written “the French had just cut off the heads of a lot of rich aristocrats”. Hmm, talk about context. The work is more in the style of Mozart than Beethoven, with suggestions of Haydn; it is simple and repetitive, but by no means without merit and deserves its place in the canon. Lively, bouncy, with a fast pace and well orchestrated, definitely entertaining (probably deliberately so in the case of the bassoon scoring being more akin to flatulence) and well played. We went into the interval feeling very upbeat.

What more can be said, or indeed written, about Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, the ‘Pastoral’? Well, I shall try, because its fifth movement Allegretto has soothed my troubled brow on many an occasion, and I hold the work among my personal favourites.

Egarr’s pace was slightly fast, and he thereby avoided the work showing any tendency to cloy or sound clichéd. The SCO played throughout with an engaging fluency and naturalness. This was not some band trotting out a popular number at the end of the evening and the work was well crafted and treated with respect.As for that familiar fifth movement Allegretto (famously used for Lentheric’s Tweed fragrance in the 1960s) Richard Egarr skilfully coaxed every nuance out of the brilliantly orchestrated score so that the music was allowed to speak for itself in all its tranquillity and serenity.

Another fine evening with the SCO that is making an increasingly serious contribution not just to the Scottish, but to the international musical scene as well.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

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RSNO. Jensen. Lugansky: Usher Hall 4 Nov ’16.

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“The RSNO is maintaining an extraordinarily high standard of repertoire and performance”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

The RSNO’s 2016/17 season continues apace with intelligent programming and excellent playing. On Friday we also had significant added value inasmuch as we heard not one but two piano concertos, in a splendid celebration of Russian music from the first half of the 20th century.

The orchestra led off with The Enchanted Lake by Anatoli Liadov. Liadov was an enigma with a somewhat mystical approach to life as well as music, delighted to maintain that “Art is a figment, a fairy tale, a phantom. Give me a fairy tale, a dragon, a water sprite, a wood demon – give me something that is unreal, and I am happy.”  And sure enough, The Enchanted Lake follows no clear story and is an impressionistic portrait of a magical lake populated by all manner of water nymphs and wood sprites. It is a gentle piece that has evocations of Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden written some eight years earlier in 1901. The RSNO’s playing was suitably, lyrically, intoned as we settled comfortably in our seats.

We were rapidly shaken out of them by Nicolai Lugansky’s bravura rendition of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. “Nicolai has been coming to us for twenty years” one of the RSNO staffers enthusiastically told me, and it is commendable that this orchestra has such long-standing relationships with star players. Clearly this is reciprocated, because Lugansky learnt the work by heart in a week before the concert.

The work is of mixed quality and rather bitty. Five movements in twenty-five minutes, but only the last two are of any substance. There is far more “music” in the first concerto, a 15-minute work but less slender, which came after the interval. Nonetheless Lugansky took hold of it, easily disposing of its demanding notation, with the orchestra providing enthusiastic support. The fourth movement Larghetto was the most melodic, at least at the start until it built into a strong climax. The fifth, appropriately named Vivo, provided a lively conclusion.

After the interval the indomitable Lugansky appeared again for  Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, the more rounded one. This 15-minute tour de force is an object lesson in less means more, and much as I enjoy the other four concerti this one stirs me most. From its confident three chord brass opening in D flat major the piano and orchestra belted out the near frantic theme in unison until the orchestra took off on its own with the soloist following in a series of bravura passages, pausing only for a few minutes’ reflection in the second section of what is really a one-movement work. It was a joyride: taut, together, highly effective orchestral playing under the confident and relaxed baton of Eivind Gullberg Jensen, with soloist Lubansky clearly a master of his art. The theme sang out again when the pace returned in the third section and ended in a blaze of glory with the addition of glockenspiel.

The evening was brought to a close by Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, premiered in 1936 by no less than Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and by a short head the most recently composed piece of the evening. Rachmaninov was a master of the romantic genre and this work is close to film music, and none the worse for it. However, unlike the utterly romantic Second Symphony with its long melodic lines, this pleasing work is full of thematic variations that never really go anywhere, so you are subjected to a series of treats rather than an enveloping whole. The RSNO were completely at home with it, from the opening cello solo (the first movement is all down to the cellos), through the wistful horn and harp opening of the second, concluding with the zestful Allegro with the orchestra giving everything it had got. This is a more reflective, even introspective work than the second symphony, which nonetheless, and notwithstanding the stature of the second symphony, contains some of the most expressive and romantic classical music ever written.

The RSNO is maintaining an extraordinarily high standard of repertoire and performance, worthy of its pedigree and 125th Year Anniversary.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 4 November)

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