There can’t be a single orchestral musician who doesn’t approach The Rite of Spring with a combination of excitement and terror. More than a century after its premiere it remains the piece from which music has never recovered, and it always retains its power to shock.

Stefan Jackiw, Thomas Søndergård and the RSNO
© Jessica Cowley

Or at least, it should. That shock value was the only thing missing from this pristine performance from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, but it was probably the most critical ingredient. Every part of the orchestral soundscape sounded in excellent form, from the organic tendrils of sound that rose up from the wheezy winds of the opening, to the truly gorgeous, rich string sound of the Spring Rounds and the blazingly accurate battery of percussion. But there was little to make the scalp prickle. Thomas Søndergård’s direction felt very straight, rarely exciting and never revelatory. Only in the dances that ended each part did a touch of the white-knuckle ride enter the music. Otherwise this Rite was impeccable, shiny, but never raw, and it’s always a shame when The Rite is beautiful rather than hair-raising.

David Fennessy’s new piece was shocking, but not in a good way. The Riot Act was a six-minute explosion of sound and fury that signified very little except some repetitious blocks of noise that seemed to stand for the anger of protest. Poor Mark Le Brocq had to screech the text of the 1714 Riot Act against a brash wall of noise that only briefly relented, and gave him no space to show his vocal colour. This felt more like politics than music, and wasn’t helped by Fennessy’s rambling spoken introduction where his explanation of the piece took about as long as the piece itself. Leader Maya Iwabuchi’s introduction to the whole concert likewise took about as long as Stravinsky’s Fireworks, the evening's surprisingly delicate whizz-bang of an opening. I’m all in favour of musicians talking to their audience, but lengthy “here’s-what’s-in-my-head” rambles have become the norm at both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the RSNO and they need to bite the dust. Say it briefly and then let the music do the talking, please.

Britten’s Violin Concerto, by contrast, communicated vividly through its music alone, thanks in no small part to the playing of violinist Stefan Jackiw. I’d never come across Jackiw before but he’s a real find. Not only is his technique completely secure, but he invested Britten’s music with a cantabile quality that it only rarely gets. There was a fleet-footed Scherzo quality to most of his first movement, as well as the second movement Scherzo proper, and the ghostly shadow that fell over both the first movement’s coda and most of the finale was chillingly vivid. Jackiw is a calm, totally unshowy presence on the podium, but he’s riveting to watch and to hear, and he knew perfectly how to tread Britten’s tightrope between optimism and melancholy. Britten’s concerto also brought out the best in the orchestra, their sound dripping with emotion (and vibrato) in the final Passacaglia, and Søndergård shaped the whole piece like an unfolding narrative, as though he was painting a tone poem. Not shocking, but definitely gripping.