A welcome and developing relationship between the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Perth Concert Hall gives those studying in Glasgow opportunities to perform in a venue off their normal patch. It was particularly exciting for a Perth lunchtime audience to hear a showcase of Conservatoire brass and woodwind musicians and the RCS Voices performing a challenging and very enjoyable all-Stravinsky programme.

RCS Voices © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
RCS Voices
© Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments was written in memory of Debussy, and is playful yet tinged with an austerity and sadness. Scored in one movement for 12 woodwind and 11 brass players including tuba and contrabassoon, the music ranges through bright ensemble and solo work to sombre brass chords underpinning the whole. Conductor Timothy Dean drew out contrasting series of colours from the initial clownish squeals on the clarinet, sinuous flutes and pinpoint accurate ensemble playing from all the players heading off the challenges of syncopated passages taken at a rattling pace. The sonorous brass built a sense of wonderment towards the end reflecting the Orthodox litanies underlying the piece.

Russian Andrey Rubtsov is a Leverhume Conducting Fellow at RCS, using his time in Glasgow to assist Donald Runnicles at the BBCSSO, but also to work with RSNO and Scottish Opera. Tall and expressive, he conducted Stravinsky’s Octet with deceptive economic precision bringing out the piece’s humour and the contrasts with the more stately passages. The student players took the piece to heart from deft solo work to the lengthy neo-classical runs in the bassoons and clarinet underpinning several sections. It is an engaging piece, and fiendish to play with its quirky time changes, strange harmonies and almost jazzy feel – the flute and clarinet were almost dancing at one point. The tight ensemble work, precise unison passages and exciting range of dynamics really showed off this talented group of young players.

Timothy Dean was back on the podium to conduct RCS Voices, a fairly new group of talented young singers, formed to provide performing opportunities as a group of soloists and as an ensemble. They received acclaim as the chorus in the Edinburgh Festival’s Rakes Progress, so I was keen to hear them again in Stravinsky’s Mass. Written between 1944 and 1948, Stravinsky wanted to write a liturgical piece but was frustrated by the Orthodox Church’s insistence on music for voices alone as musical instruments are not allowed. Scored for a small mixed ensemble of brass and woodwind that includes two bassoons and three trombones, the music tends to take on a rather relentless sombre laden quality. Thankfully, Dean’s lightness of touch considerably lessened the gloom.

The 20 singers in a semicircle behind the ensemble gave a blended performance with crystal clear words throughout from staccato Kyries and precise chanting in the Credo to a gloriously dissonant Hosanna climax in the Sanctus. There were several solos taken from within the ranks providing some beautiful moments in the Gloria. The ensemble provided a solid grounding, Dean keeping the three growly trombones in order. It would be really interesting to hear this Mass in a liturgical setting.

Barely an hour of music at lunchtime, we had been taken on quite a journey by the end, and it was a fine chance for us to hear a particularly talented group of young players and singers in an unusual and exciting programme.