In an engaging German-Scots accent, RSNO first violinist Ursula Heidecker Allen promised the pre-concert talk audience an evening of sunny Mediterranean moods. Time being a factor in these very worthwhile 25-minute, capacity-crowd events, she addressed only the programme’s two Respighi pieces, mentioning that he was a pupil of another programmed composer, Martucci.

Miloš Karadaglić © DG / Margaret Malandruccolo
Miloš Karadaglić
© DG / Margaret Malandruccolo

In addition to being a conductor and composer, Giuseppe Martucci (1856–1909) was a virtuoso pianist much of whose compositional output consists of piano music. His most famous work, the 1901 Notturno, is an orchestration of a piano original from a decade earlier. Although by no means the most modern-sounding of the evening’s pieces, it stood out as the only item not inspired by historical material. Varga and the RSNO made the most of Martucci’s elegant scoring, the strings producing a particularly beautiful sound. The piece’s wistful nature was kept the right side of sentimental, with restraint only being abandoned for the piece’s emotional climax. There were lovely solo contributions from principal clarinet John Cushing and guest principal oboe Xabier Lijó Bilbao.

Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1939 Concierto de Aranjuez was surely the programme’s best known piece, and the only one which Gilbert Varga conducted from a score. The opening movement, oscillating elegantly between 6/8 and 3/4, was inspired by the gardens of the 16th-century Palacio Real de Aranjuez (rebuilt two centuries later). The stately yet sunny opening was convincingly captured by the young Montenegrin soloist Miloš Karadaglić. As orchestral forces joined I wondered if the volume of the guitar was going to be sufficient. Karadaglić plays a guitar fashioned by the innovative Australian luthier Greg Smallman. Its unique strutting system, combined with very thin top, results in more volume than is normally possible on a classical guitar, but nevertheless, there were a few moments where balance could have benefited from amplification. A microphone and monitors were in place, but turned towards the orchestra, presumably to aid ensemble. I sympathise with the desire to preserve the natural sound of the guitar but, on occasion, we had to listen hard for it.

The tristesse of the central movement was beautifully captured, particularly the closing section, which achingly conveys a sense of closure, or resignation, without quite suggesting healing. Karadaglić was at his most moving in this Adagio’s restive, impassioned cadenza. The closing Allegro gentile, with its oddly asymmetric mixture of 3/4 and 2/4 bars, was infectiously buoyant. The concerto’s overriding tonality of D major was nicely contrasted by the moody D minor of Karadaglić’s intimate, nostalgic encore, Milonga by the Argentinean guitarist, composer and medical doctor Jorge Cardoso.

The two Respighi works which framed the programme couldn’t have been better chosen to highlight his breadth of style. Both drew on historical ideas, and the opening item on 16th-century tunes. The Ancient Airs and Dances suite no. 1 (1917) is the first of three works resulting from Respighi’s studies in early music. That the suite’s four movements amount to much more than orchestrations of the lute originals could be most clearly heard in the second, a “Gagliarda” from the 1550s by Vincenzo Galilei, father of the heliocentric astronomer Galileo Galilei. Harmonisation such as Respighi used in the middle section would surely have resulted in Vincenzo feeling the sharp edge of authority experienced by his son. Although written entirely in 3/4 this outer sections of this movement featured some nice wrong-footing, its falling pairs of notes suggesting something other than triple time.

Scored for much smaller forces than the 104-strong finale, these pieces showcased lovely sound, and contrasting contributions of the RSNO strings and woodwind. I thought the odd combination of harp and harpsichord a nice touch.

It was difficult to believe that the closing 1928 Feste Romane (“Roman Festivals”) was the work of the same man. Its four seamless movements, at times rich in dissonance, depict Rome throughout the ages. Gargantuan scoring includes nine percussionists and eight trumpets – three posted in the upper circle to herald Nero’s Massimo Circus in the opening movement, “Circenses”. The condemned Christian martyrs doubtless would have thrilled a little less to this sound than we did. I could hear in this work, as Ursula Heidecker Allen had promised, the influence Respighi’s writing would have on Hollywood composers years later. The riotousness of the first movement yielded to the sombre ostinato strings in “Il giubileo” (“The Jubilee”). At odds with the bell chimes to follow, the opening theme is oddly dark, given its ascending nature. I particularly enjoyed the final movement, “La Befana” (“Epiphany”) whose boisterous street scenes, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, were wonderfully delivered. Varga and the RSNO looked and sounded as though they were really enjoying this.