Peter Oundjian is well into his final season as the RSNO’s Music Director (he now has only two concerts left with them) and his self-curated set of blockbusters moves on to one of the biggest symphonies of them all. I’ve often been critical of Oundjian’s work with the RSNO, but one of my strongest memories of his time in Scotland was a really stunning Bruckner 7 in 2014, not that long after his Music Directorship had begun. His understanding of Bruckner’s architecture, not to mention the sound the orchestra produced in response, was really impressive, and I admitted to being more than a little surprised to hear that Bruckner should find such a natural home with this orchestra who don’t play his music often.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

This Bruckner 8 was every bit as fine. Oundjian was giving the UK première of a new 1887 version realised by Paul Hawkshaw, which claims to be the closest approximation yet to the composer’s original thoughts before Hermann Levi rejected the work and the composer began a lengthy revision. I guess that gives Oundjian a special empathy with it (he conducted its world première in New Haven last October), even though the differences aren’t massive, though they include a much more affirmative ending for the first movement and (slightly naff) multiple cymbal clashes at the climax of the Adagio.

What matters, however, is the sound that the orchestra produced to match it, which was magisterially rich, with a luxurious string tone and a glorious bed of brass to support it. Oundjian built the sound from the bottom up, with rock solid cellos and basses, and the most special moments were when the strings were playing towards the lower end of their registers. That peaked in the great Adagio, of course, which unfolded in a profoundly meditative, unhurried manner as a deep mahogany tone emanated from the violins over gentle murmurings from the lower strings. Elsewhere, however, those same violins were predominantly sweet, summoning some lovely tone in the finale and some delicious portamenti in the treacly second theme of the first movement.

Oundjian’s control was mightily impressive, not just in the limitless space of the slow movement, but also in the upbeat musical language of the Scherzo, with its galumphing brass and sense of joyous spiralling at its conclusion. He built the final paragraph extremely well, though the episodic nature of the finale remains a problem. Still, Bruckner seems to be a really strong fit for this team, so it’s a shame we haven’t heard more of the composer’s music during Oundjian’s time with them. I guess the composer remains a tough sell compared with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but he’d be a good choice if Oundjian were to return as a guest.

Mozart is, in lots of ways, at the other end of the musical spectrum to Bruckner, but this really successful performance of the composer’s last C major piano concerto owed much to the bespoke tailoring of the sound. For example, the much smaller orchestra sounded confident without being overbearing, bringing the composer’s triumphal atmosphere to life without over-Romanticising it, with some beautifully dainty sound in the final Rondo. Christian Blackshaw’s playing was similarly sensitive – gentlemanly, even – flowing in and out of the orchestra in a beautifully tailored manner, and providing a very satisfying overall texture. Outside of the piano concertos, big symphony orchestras like the RSNO don’t tend to do much Mozart at the moment, but this performance shows they still have a lot to offer in his music.

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