While Thomas Søndergård welcomed the audience, I surveyed the large forces gathered for Brett Dean's 2001 Dispersal: timpani plus five percussionists; five horns; eight brass. Søndergård described a score dense with information and this short, gripping piece was certainly busy, though not always as loud as the massive forces might suggest. Dean's programme note explained how 'dispersal' was a widely used euphemism for the killing of the indigenous population of his native Australia. The work refers to a mid-1800s incident in "Murdering Creek" near Noosa, Queensland. Søndergård alerted us to the intriguing ending where a solo violin and cello distract, by means of quietly scurrying passages, the harmonium's calm. He compared it to the common contemporary experience of the difficulty of residing in distraction-free contemplation. When the moment arrived I couldn't dispel the image of flies buzzing around corpses.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

A theme of displacement was beginning to emerge. Britten's 1939 Violin Concerto Op.15 was written for Antonio Brosa, then in exile from Franco's Spain. Britten was soon to leave Britain for America but the concerto refers to the Spanish Civil War. The timpani's opening five-note motto set the mood before transferring to horn and bassoon. Soloist Vilde Frang (who has previously recorded with Søndergård) unfurled Britten's first lyrical theme with fine pacing, making easy work of its dramatic shifts in register. Two things soon struck me in her playing: octave passages executed with prodigious technical assurance; articulation with the urgent clarity of someone who really feels and means what they are playing. The RSNO string sound in Britten's troubled opening chords was spot-on and the horn chords later in the movement were rousing. The tension created by Frang towards the movement's end was palpable, its final notes at the upper limit of my hearing range.

Britten reversed traditional fast-slow-fast concerto form and the resulting central Vivace set off at a great lick, John Whitener's tuba adding an emphatic full-stop to the first 'paragraph'. Like Dvořák, Britten eschewed the notion of themes belonging solely to one movement and the cadenza which ends the second movement is constructed from the previous movement's principal themes. Frang's playing was electrifying here. At one point her right hand bowed the lyrical theme while left hand slurs executed shadows of the drum rhythm.

A counter-theme on three dark trombones links the cadenza to the closing Passacaglia - one of the finest, sentimentality-free examples of pathos I know. Gradually thickening string textures led us to RSNO Guest Principal Trumpet Brian McGinley's magnificent descant. Only Britten could lead to a concerto's climax with a passage of scales. This seemingly unpromising ingredient dominates one of the work's most dramatically charged passages, underpinned by energising trombone cross-rhythms. Frang's de-escalation was masterly, right to the end where the violin swithers between the major and minor third of the scale. Britten chose minor; it was 1939.

Dvořák's Symphony no. 9 in E minor Op. 95 “From the New World” was penned in New York while the homesick Czech was on something of a professional high. He predicted a future for American music based on the use of African-American and native Indian melodies. This, combined with his love of Scottish folk music, surely contributed to the wealth of pentatonic material in the works DNA, resulting in accessible and memorable themes. The first of these was delivered with aplomb by the horns, who were having an excellent evening, and the second, more folksy theme, by flutes. In the development section, one could hear that Dvořák would have been a top cinema composer.

I always imagine the cor anglais soloist in the Largo must feel like an actor about to embark on Hamlet's existential soliloquy: how to enliven the hugely familiar? The answer lay in Zoe Kitson's rendition here: trust the text; find and follow its beauty. This winning simplicity really hit the spot, especially in the 'middle eight' where John Cushing supplied the lovely clarinet counter-melody. Paired horns rounded off this section nicely. The main theme's reprise was delicately delivered, complete with Dvořák's ingenious use of rests in the front desk strings' soli passage.

Søndergård and the RSNO whipped up quickening contrast to the Largo in the Scherzo: molto vivace, whose furiant rhythms pit groups of two against three. These rhythms were further offset by the trombones' wonderfully undermining cross-rhythm.

Migratory themes from earlier movements appeared re-energised in the closing Allegro con fuoco. There was certainly plenty of fire, especially in the stratospheric notes of Stephen Nichols' horn and Brian McGinley's trumpet. Hearty applause was rewarded with further fury in Dvořák's Slavonic Dance no. 8 in G minor.

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