The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, playing for the first time in Edinburgh under Peter Oundjian as Music Director Designate, put together a very solid performance of works by Rouse, Grieg and Brahms.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

Christopher Rouse’s Rapture was programmed as part of the RSNO’s Ten Out of Ten series: Ten works written in last decade which current Music Director Stéphane Denève believes will become regular concert repertoire. Rapture is an eleven minute symphonic poem of sorts, depicting, in the composer’s words, “An ever more blinding ecstasy”. The piece is almost without dissonance, passing from rumbling open fifths in the cellos and basses at the beginning to a galloping F major fortissimo conclusion. Despite the undeniable elation of the ending, the progressive ecstasy is perhaps less convincing. I wondered how seriously such a progression could be taken when it comes from such innocuously benign beginnings. That said, the portrayal of a world without dissonance is very effective; the beautifully phrased wind solos in the early parts of the piece are such that the ‘spiritual bliss’ described by the composer is felt very early in the performance. This establishes a baseline from which evolution is difficult. Perhaps this is part of Rouse’s intention, though – is he leading us to question the merits of such a utopian world? In this respect, I thought the piece very effective, but as a progression from ‘dark to light’, as the programme note suggests, I was less convinced. The orchestral playing was excellent, with superb solos, most memorably from the timpani. Oundjian paced the tempo increase very well, developing the sense of joy as effectively as the music would allow.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor followed the Rouse. The Concerto has a similar sense of progression to Rapture, moving from the turbulent and then self-doubting opening, via warm serenity, to grand resolution. Though it is a work well known to Stephen Hough, his interpretation in this concert felt remarkably fresh. He did not linger on the doubtful opening theme, but pushed through the movement quite briskly. The second movement was as beautifully phrased as would be expected from a pianist of Hough’s calibre. His devotion to the melodic lines, resulting in perfectly placed moments of lingering and accentuation, was evident. The third movement was as tempestuous as the second was elegant. The growth into the closing themes was managed very well by Oundjian and the grand finale did not disappoint. Overall, this was a very good performance, though one or two minor issues might hold it from being great. Ensemble was not quite perfect in a couple of instances, with entries in the brass section sometimes slightly late, and a couple of woodwind entries not quite together. There were also one or two smudged notes in the louder piano passages, but these took very little away from what was otherwise a very enjoyable and musical performance.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major is, like the Grieg, a work expressing self-doubt before a convincingly content conclusion. The notes of the opening theme, an ascending F-A-F, are widely cited as standing for ‘Frei aber froh’ (‘free but happy’), a motto used by the composer to express his contentment despite being alone. The two opening chords in the wind may have been slightly more reserved than usually played, but the principal theme certainly was not. Oundjian drove the tempo quite briskly and gave a very effective sense of direction to the movement. The pace did not threaten to dent the gorgeous lyricism of the playing. The clarinet parts in particular were beautifully shaped throughout the symphony. At the end of the andante Oundjian engineered a wonderfully serene, peaceful passage, giving the music a strong pastoral air. The third movement, with its haunting main theme being passed between sections, was clearly enjoyed and very well performed by the Orchestra. The turbulent fourth movement grows from an urgent unison theme and is developed with wonderful vision. The triplet theme, for horn and low strings, was particularly enjoyable for its excellent phrasing and attention to the detail in articulation. The climax of the movement, a fortissimo in brass and timpani, was reached whilst all the while never losing sight of the destination. The tempo continued briskly all the way to the coda, in which the opening theme of the piece is restated, and the music drifts into a sense of perfectly contented calm. The woodwind were again excellent, and Oundjian’s vision of the end gave a perfectly timed and well-rounded conclusion to a superb performance of an excellent symphony.

****1