Peter Oundjian is ending his time as Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with a (slightly random) tour through masterpieces that he enjoys conducting. Nothing wrong with that, and if you’re the boss then you have the right to go out in a manner of your own choosing, but this Brahms Requiem was a shadow of what it should have been.

Augustin Hadelich © Rosalie O'Connor
Augustin Hadelich
© Rosalie O'Connor

The central problem was the anodyne homogeneity that characterised his whole reading, as though the piece had been put through a mixer to smooth out all the bumps. In the search for perfection, however, what we mostly got was flavourless stew. Take the second movement, for example: “Denn alles fleisch” was too loud when it first appeared, then too quiet in its second iteration, meaning that the whole sense of approaching doom was diluted to the point of bathos. The great turning point of “Aber des Herrn Wort” passed for almost nothing, reducing the impact to a fizzle instead of a bang, and letting all the air out of the moment's musical and spiritual power. There were similar problems elsewhere. The Last Trumpet of the sixth movement felt rushed and cursory, and in the third movement there was very little tightening of the screw on “Ich hoffe auf dich”, meaning, inevitably, that there was no sense of release on the great fugue of “Dem Gerechten Seelen”, for all that the orchestral lines were admirably clear. Oundjian didn’t have a feel for the drama of the piece, and not once did I feel my scalp prickle with the excitement that this work needs.

The quieter moments were better, and the orchestral contribution was strong throughout, revelling in the subdued colours of the outer movements, even if they were never let off the leash elsewhere. The RSNO Chorus has improved enormously under Gregory Batsleer’s direction. They’re still not particularly relaxed on top, and there is little sense of ease in the higher climaxes, but this had mostly righted itself by the time of the last movement, and their pitching in general is much better than it used to be. The tenor line is still rather wispy, but with a permanent UK-wide shortage of tenors it’s hard to criticise them too much for that. Roderick Williams, normally the most dependable of baritones, seemed strangely less secure and smaller of voice in “Herr, lehre doch mich”, but he developed in strength by the declamations of the sixth movement, and Sarah-Jane Brandon’s pearly voice delivered angelic purity in “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”.

It was left to Augustin Hadelich to sprinkle some stardust with a super Dvořák Violin Concerto in A minor. The opening orchestral flourish was a little muted, but Hadelich responded with a solo line of operatic intensity and Elysian beauty, pouring down lyricism from heights that you seldom associate with this concerto. His approach came into its own in the lovely slow movement, which had a more fabulously beautiful line than I've ever heard it played live, sweeping in its intensity but touching in its simplicity; and the finale was sunny and bright but at its most interesting in its more introverted inner episodes. Fauré’s Pavane made for a most refined opening item, featuring a limpid flute solo that seemed to revel in the ochre of its lower registers. If only more of that colour had turned up in the Brahms. 

***11