Wolfgang Rihm’s Duo Concerto was written for the soloists on tonight’s billing, and it was premiered by them with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra whose former boss, Krishna Thiagarajan, is now the Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. All of which means that there is a pleasant symmetry to their bringing it to Scotland, and it’s a high profile UK première performance for Peter Oundjian to do in his final year as the orchestra’s Music Director.

Jan Vogler
© Jim Rakete

Rihm is probably Germany’s most famous living composer, and he has a reputation for cerebral intellectualism in his music. That’s admirable, but it doesn’t make him approachable. The Duo Concerto is a strictly serialist, twelve-tone work that relishes in its abstraction. It can often be beautiful, however, particularly in the orchestral parts. In a pre-concert briefing, Jan Vogler explained that the role of the orchestra was like a veil cast over the solo parts, but if it was then I found it a very spare one. The moody opening is a dark, undulating melody in the strings which sets a tone of introspection and, in many ways, alienation for the work. That theme of alienation is especially evident in the soloists. Far from mirroring one another’s music or seeking each other out, they often play as though they were having a conversation where neither is listening to the other, their music like parallel lines that can’t converge. That made the sections where they do coincide sound like oases in a rather unrelenting desert, and they would often disappear into the orchestral texture and reappear a few minutes later. In many ways, therefore, it’s an anti-Double-Concerto, neither demonstrative nor harmonious, as though setting out to undermine the models of Brahms or Mozart. It’s interesting to hear it done, but it’s disarming in its abstraction and there are so few landmarks that it’s hard work for both musicians and audience. Still, you have to admire a composer who is so uncompromisingly highbrow in his vision, and as a comment on discord and the desirability of peace (it was written to commemorate ten years since the reopening of Dresden’s Frauenkirche) it has a power of its own.

Going from Rihm to Brahms’ Double Concerto is like plunging from a snowstorm into a hot bath. Maybe the experience of the Rihm made the drama of the opening movement sound even more epic than usual, but I loved the sweeping, almost defiant lyricism of both the orchestral line and the soloists’ playing. Vogler, in particular, treated his solo sections like an operatic recitative, even in the faster Vivace sections of the finale, and Wang, his wife, matched him both in virtuosity and in beauty of tone. The highlight, however, was the opening of the slow movement, which produced sensational legato tone, soloists and orchestra slotting into one another like concentric circles, and creating a sound like molten chocolate.

The tone was also remarkably warm for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the orchestra creating a sound that was proudly that of a symphony orchestra with modern instruments and lots of vibrato, as welcoming as those happy feelings depicted in the first movement. That especially shone in moments like the first movement’s coda and the Shepherds’ Hymn, and it cast a misty hue over the second movement. We got a bustling peasant wedding with lovely dynamic shading (and a great skirl in the dance) and, if the brass didn’t make quite as big an impact in the storm as I might have liked, then they created a golden underpinning for an exultant final hymn.