The adjective in the title of Britten’s 1934 Simple Symphony could refer to the ease with which listeners can spot each movement’s two contrasting themes. Attentive, lively use of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, colour enabled Peter Oundjian and the RSNO to make the most of young Britten’s diversity within impressive compositional unity.

Peter Oundjia © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjia
© Sian Richards

The pace of the opening ”Boisterous Bourrée” really registered when brisk counterpoint descended to the cellos and double basses, necessitating quick hands on long necks. The delicate, upbeat opening theme of “Playful Pizzicato” was nicely contrasted by a heavier, down-beat, more bucolic theme, very reminiscent of The Archers. In the tiny gap which attends this handover, I became aware of the wealth of quality string instruments on stage as the ringing pizzicato chord resounded in the rich acoustic of the circular Usher Hall. Alliteration’s tendency to lighten may have led to surprise at the grief-stricken opening theme of the Sentimental Sarabande. The RSNO strings really brought out the Purcellian angst here before settling into the gentler nostalgia of its partner theme. An energetically delivered “Frolicsome Finale” concluded this Britten centenary item.

The UK première of James MacMillan’s 2011 Piano Concerto no. 3, “The Mysteries of Light” featured the pianist for whom it was written, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In five seamless sections, the work’s form reflects the structure of the rosary, specifically John Paul II’s 2002 associated text “Luminous Mysteries”. MacMillan’s own programme note stressed that “each image or event becomes the springboard for a subjective reflection”. Nevertheless, there were a couple of moments of unmistakable portrayal or, at least, reference. The most striking occurred in the opening “Baptisma Iesu Christi” which featured the striking sound of a gong immersed in water. Another referential moment featured in the following “Miraculum in Cana” where RSNO Leader Maya Iwabuchi’s solo violin rang out with credible Israeli wedding music. Mixed in with it seemed to be a Celtic tinge, a feature which, along with religious reference and contemporary idioms, contributes greatly to MacMillan’s musical language.

I sensed Messiaen’s influence, not only in faith-inspired writing, but also in a fondness for bright, tuned percussion. While this might not be many composers’ natural complement to piano, I found it a magical combination. In addition to brilliant cascades, the soloist’s role involved simple chordal statements of the plainsong at the concerto’s core – statements which gained additional charge when passed to the brass. The fact that Thibaudet was playing from music as opposed to memory suggested, to me at any rate, that this is a concerto with a different ethos. Not to diminish the considerable virtuosity required, this piece struck me as more of a concerto for the instrument and its interaction with the orchestra than for the soloist in the sense of a romantic concerto, where soloist stands apart from orchestra. In whichever case, MacMillan, seated in the stalls, seemed absolutely delighted with the performance when he stepped forward to thank the players and to acknowledge applause.

This opening concert of the 2013/14 season finished its celebration of British music with former RSNO trombonist Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets (1914–16). A live performance of this pre-Apollo, pre-Hubble music of the spheres has been on my “bucket list” for some time. I hadn’t realised until reading Charlotte Gardner’s fine programme note that these are astrological rather than astronomical portraits. What the planets’ approach and retreat bring us is not applicable to constant Earth.

Oundjian’s sense of pace and mood delivered two essential ingredients which seem encoded within “Mars, the Bringer of War”: that a huge part of the terror of conflict is its approach; that for some there is glory in the idea of war, hinted at by a brief lightening of mood and brass fanfares two or three minutes in. For the most part, though, this movement was grippingly terrifying, which made the following “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” all the more serene.

There was genuine lightness and wit in the delivery of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger”, a genuinely mercurial performance especially by the wind section, Judith Keaney on celeste and Maya Iwabuchi on solo violin. I wasn’t expecting anything new in the familiar “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” but saw, and therefore heard, some great trombone counterpoint figures in the 3/4 section of this ingenious 2/4 movement.

The sagacious acceptance of life’s end in “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was convincingly abandoned in short moments of panic where the ethereally calm opening chords reappeared at triple speed. The quirky opening of “Uranus, the Magician” contrasted greatly with an astonishing dissonance near the end – a possible warning not to underestimate the danger of dark arts. A serene “Neptune, the Mystic” concluded a performance which had everything I’d imagined, and more.