This compendium of colourful orchestration opened with a study in monochrome, Elgar's  Introduction and Allegro. The journey from dark, minor key, attention-grabbing introduction to bright fugal Allegro revealed it to be a three-layered work for soloists, string quartet and string orchestra. Principal Viola Tom Dunn's warm sound informed the first extended solo moment. Leader Maya Iwabuchi led the fine quartet in tender chamber moments. Composed by violinist Elgar to showcase the strings of the newly formed LSO, and here conducted by violinist Peter Oundjian, the piece seemed ideal to showcase the Royal Scottish National Orchestra string section's nuance and know how. Attention to dynamics and articulation ensured a thoroughly lively account and there was no visual moment livelier than the double basses joining a passage of extremely energetic semiquavers. Fans of pizzicato would have smiled at the moment where four cellos effortlessly claimed the airwaves when numerous rivals' included four other cellos. The confidence of the final, major, pizzicato chord, following a unison, rang out cheerfully.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

Stravinsky's 1919 Firebird Suite, extracted from the 1910 ballet, also opened in darkness with depth and tonal mystery supplied by basses and muted trombones. Lifting gradually via flutes and a moment of Messiaen-like ornithological piano, light arrived via Guest Principal Clarinet Nicholas Cox's graceful playing. Looking around the strings in this movement, and throughout, it seemed clear, especially in pizzicato moments, that rhythm took wing by the implication of the first beat, as opposed to a strong, grounding statement; this was fine ensemble playing and more was in store in the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei”, whose lighter moments were clinched by agile xylophone and slide trombone.

The lovely “Khorovod” (Round Dance) highlighted fine woodwind playing from the principals, particularly oboist Adrian Wilson and bassoonist David Hubbard, who later shone in the closing “Berceuse”. The exposed segue from “Berceuse” to finale was beautifully handled by RSNO Guest Principal Horn Christopher Gough. This transition also saw the pianissimo tremolando strings later replaced by a fierce fortissimo. Closing muscle was flexed by John Poulter's timpani and wonderful RSNO brass.

The ever-relaxed but watchful Steven Osborne kept his eyes on Peter Oundjian during the opening bars of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major; the piano participates in the accompaniment to the opening flute melody, here energetically delivered by Helen Brew and soon amplified by Guest Principal Trumpet Toby Street. Ears then focused on Osborne in the first of two types of jazz-inspired piano to characterise the work: timeless, heartfelt blues and more athletic Tinpan Alley-inspired writing. Both genres require their own kind of unhurried approach and Osborne seems master of both.

Timelessness to the power of ten informed the aching solo piano melody which opens the Adagio assai. It was very touching seeing RSNO players watch Osborne navigate this extended moment whose endlessly searching nature is sustained by imaginary or fleeting resolution. The same theme was later lovingly revisited by Jonathan Ryan on cor anglais while Osborne floated above with the lightest, non-attention-grabbing toccata passage à la J. S. Bach. This movement also featured lovely orchestration, particularly the flute-oboe-clarinet-flute relaying of melody, beautifully handled here.

The short, dynamic closing Presto, whose sparkle was clinched by triangle and whip, saw Osborne in virtuosic, Art Tatum-style stride. There is sufficient carefree cheer in this movement, especially as rendered here, to allow recovery from the pathos of its predecessor. Such was the audience response that Osborne offered a short encore, introduced with the reviewer's nightmare words: "You have to guess what this is". Things Ain't What They Used To Be by Mercer Ellington (son of Duke) had such a loose, lazy stride to it that one had to be impressed either by the improvisation therein, or the ability to imbue the memorised notes with that feel. Once again I found myself noticing the admiring regard of orchestral members; like the music, the feel was now quite different.

Few celebrations of orchestration would feel complete without Ottorino Respighi who, although Italian, studied with Rimsky-Korsakov while also working in Russia as an orchestral violist. Shimmering is the word which springs to mind and comparison with Stravinsky's early ballet scores is unsurprising given their shared teacher. The Pines of Rome certainly shimmers from its opening thanks to bright percussion and highly mobile orchestration which seems never to settle for more than a few bars. In this regard teamwork was excellent. Resident and auxiliary brass were outstanding – literally in the case of John Gracie's offstage trumpet. Significant visible solo moments featured flute, clarinet, bassoon and cor anglais in an exotic melody of Eastern promise. This was a rousing close to a fine programme.