Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards
Scots may view Hadrian’s Wall as a neat way of keeping out the Sassenachs, but looking at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s new season, the threat of invasion appears to come from further east. No fewer than nine Russian composers feature, from Tchaikovsky to Shchedrin, the season ending with a significant focus on Igor Stravinsky. Each programme is scheduled for both Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the orchestra also takes some concerts to Dundee and Aberdeen, ensuring the Russian invasion envelops much of Scotland’s east coast.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony may not have as wide an appeal as the “Pathétique”, but it is arguably an even finer work, the composer in full heart-on-sleeve mode. The finale can be heard in different ways: is it a triumphant ending or is the composer merely putting on a brave face? Tragedy strikes in Romeo and Juliet, a fantasy overture after Shakespeare, in which the great love theme will be instantly recognisable. Tchaikovsky was prompted to write it on the suggestion of the composer Mily Balakirev, self-styled leader of a group of composers promoting Russianness in music. Balakirev even dictated the structure the overture needed to take! The finale of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has a real Russian flavour, a fast and furious hopak (a Cossack dance). Latvian violinist Baiba Skride performs the concerto in December.

Rachmaninov and Stravinsky were both exiled from Revolutionary Russia, but that’s about where the similarities between them end. Rachmaninov composed in a grand romantic style which often looked back, while Stravinsky was one of the most innovative – and influential – composers of the 20th century. The Symphony in Three Movements, the Violin Concerto and The Rite of Spring constitute the elements in the end of season “Stravinsky Project”. Two of Rachmaninov’s most popular works – both piano concertos – feature next season, both immortalised in film: the Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor is famous for its use in Brief Encounter, while the Third was central to the film Shine. Russian-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltberg tackles both concertos.

A pair of special evenings attempt to get “under the skin” of two Russian composers. Sandy Burnett presents introductions to the works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, with the RSNO providing musical illustrations.  

Plan for a City Gate © Viktor Hartmann
Plan for a City Gate
© Viktor Hartmann
With the RSNO’s new logo looking like an explosion of powder paints, it’s entirely fitting that Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition features early on in the orchestra’s new season. Inspired by the work of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky takes his listeners on a guided tour of a gallery, with a linking promenade theme between several of them. The musical portraits range from the gruesome – “The Gnome” and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” – to the delightful – “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells”. The works culminates in noisy celebration of “The Great Gate of Kiev”, based on Hartmann’s design for a Bogatyr heroes’ gate, with a cupola shaped like a slavonic helmet. Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Søndergård is our gallery guide. 

Two of Shostakovich’s symphonies are programmed: the Sixth puzzled listeners at its première, its lengthy, serious opening movement being followed by a pair of short, irreverant scherzos. The Eighth is much weightier, often bleak in outlook. The third movement toccata, with piercing brass and stabbing strings, has been described as a metaphor for the Soviet system, as “the crushing of the individual”. As often with Shostakovich, everything is not as it seems, and the music sometimes descends into circus-type farce. RSNO Music Director Peter Oundjian is our guide through this concentrated, controversial terrain.

Other Russian repertoire comes from Khachaturian, with a rare opportunity to hear his Piano Concerto, the second movement of which includes a part for flaxatone or musical saw! Two of Prokofiev’s ballets are represented by orchestral suites from Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. Borodin’s Overture to his opera Prince Igor and Rodion Shchedrin’s Naughty Limericks complete the Russian line-up.

Dejan Lazić © Susie Knoll
Dejan Lazić
© Susie Knoll
Outside of Russia, concert hall favourites are well represented, especially Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies pull in audiences up and down the country. This season, the Second (“the Resurrection”) and the Fifth are programmed, under Oundjian and Jean-Claude Picard respectively. Composer Brett Dean’s Viola Concerto, with the composer taking the solo role, is one of the contemporary delights on offer. Another composer-performer featured is Dejan Lazić, whose Piano Concerto in Istrian Style is inspired by folk music.

The sea off the Scottish coast can be bracing at the best of times, but in February Peter Oundjian sets sail for a voyage across the ocean, pairing Debussy’s La mer with Vaughan Williams’ Walt Whitman-inspired Sea Symphony. Although Debussy started work on La mer in France, he completed it in a hotel in Eastbourne, overlooking a decidely grey La Manche. The Gallic-Celtic Auld Alliance is resuscitated when former music director Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the Scottish première of James MacMillan’s The Death of Oscar, a miniature tone poem, based on the legend of the poet Ossian and the death of his son Oscar. Debussy’s Marche écossaise provides a suitably French-Scottish entrée.

Gifted soloists abound. Young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang performs Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with its stamping gypsy-inspired finale, while Karol Szymanowski's Symphony no. 4, a concertante work, features rising star pianist Igor Levit. Nicola Benedetti, who shot to fame playing Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto to win the final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year. This season, she performs his Second Concerto, less influenced hy heady exoticism than the First, but inspired by folk music of his native Poland. Jennifer Pike, another former BBC Young Musician winner, performs Bruch’s evergreen G minor concerto in June, after which the cannon and bells of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture draw the season to a suitably Russian close.

 

Article sponsored by the RSNO.