Although the Usher Hall was slightly less packed than for the inaugural concert of the season, there was a healthy crowd. If two concerts is sufficient to gauge an emerging format then Music Director Peter Oundjian’s preferred style seems to be to save welcoming remarks until after the opening piece, at which point he talks us through the evening as a whole.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes function not only as highly atmospheric scene-setting tableaux but also as a mini concerto for orchestra. Played seamlessly, as they were in this performance, the contrasts seem all the greater. “Sunday Morning” and “Moonlight” depict the same streets of a fishing village at extremes of the day. The former’s jubilant brass “bell notes”, wonderfully delivered by this excellent RSNO section, contrasted effectively with latter’s longing string writing. The fine wind section shone in the opening “Dawn”, while the dynamic percussion section whipped up a giddying, final “Storm”. When it subsided, the strings convincingly conveyed the short-lived optimism in Britten’s grim tale. These pieces were warmly received.

Russian-born Natasha Paremski joined the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A minor. That the most suitable themes for variation need not be outstanding ones in themselves is demonstrated by Rachmaninov’s ability to fashion soaring melodies from such earthbound DNA. Had I sold my soul for this theme, as the work’s inclusion of the Dies Irae theme suggests, I’d soon be in search of a Metaphysics Ombudsman. Rachmaninov’s transcendent abilities are nowhere more movingly demonstrated than in the 18th Variation. Beginning on solo piano, very lyrically played by Paremski, it soon migrates to the orchestra where a shimmering black sea of vibrato sleeves allowed us to see how much was going into the lovely sound we were enjoying. Paremski took the work’s diabolical virtuosity in her stride and the ensemble between piano and orchestra was impressive, especially in the more rhapsodic moments. Touched by the audience response, Paremski offered a short encore. Staying with Rachmaninov, but tilting us in the direction of the following work’s tonality, she played Étude-tableau no. 3 in C minor. Much less ostentatiously virtuosic in character than the Rhapsody, this short Étude seems to express great longing, which Paremski communicated effectively.

Surely one of music history’s shortest straws must involve being acknowledged as Beethoven’s heir while the world awaits your first symphony. That Brahms was 43 by the time the much-revised work was completed attests to the pressure he must have felt. However, the opening suggests the opposite of such trepidation. A no-nonsense timpani beat adds urgency to “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) harmonies. The RSNO were right on the money here. Balance and articulation allowed us to hear clearly motifs which would be important throughout the work. I wasn’t surprised to read later that this introduction, like so many of the best ones, was written after much of the score was in place.

Perhaps unsurprisingly there are echoes of Beethoven, the most obvious of which appear in the outer movements: the tonality and a motivic hint of Beethoven’s Fifth in the opening movement; the middle section of the “Ode to Joy” theme in the final movement. It’s impossible to believe that Brahms could have been unaware of this and I read it as a sign of confidence that he felt able to include overtones of his titanic predecessor in what was unmistakably Brahms’ own musical language.

In the many column inches devoted to Oundjian’s appointment as RSNO Music Director, several mentioned his adoration of Brahms’ music. In this performance of his Symphony no. 1 it was not difficult to hear what he loves so much. That such unity across a large-scale work can sit comfortably with such diversity of mood and texture struck me most forcibly. The instant clinching of each mood and the orchestra’s ability to follow the emotional contour thereafter were the two significant features which made the RSNO’s account of this work so compelling. This performance felt like one where all involved understood and loved the music.

I was presumably not alone in this feeling as the audience response secured an encore, possibly the only discerning choice for such a programme. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5 was played with great flare and with sufficient taste to keep a sense of fun on the right side of the “hamming it up” divide. The tender third phrase of the refrain, separated from its swaggering neighbours by a complete stop and tempo change really tickled this audience. I sensed that the “bedding in” of new musical relations in Edinburgh is going well.

****1