Snape Proms 2: Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Stefan Solyom

Snape Maltings, 3 August 20083.5 stars

Stefan SolyomThe first orchestral concert in this year's Snape Proms (1 – 31 August) was a full-blooded affair. An overwhelming wall of sound came from the stage at the packed house and there was much to enjoy (although those responsible for the European Noise Directive might have had something to say).  

The programme consisted of two pieces only: Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier Suite before the interval and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No 2 thereafter.

This was joyful promenade concert music making with a vengeance: and having got it out of their system once, the orchestra repeat the Rachmaninoff in the much more cavernous acoustic of the Albert Hall Proms on 4 August. It should be an interesting comparison.

Strauss wrote several arrangements of music from Der Rosenkavalier: the Suite for full symphony orchestra is the most elaborate, the most alarming (in terms of its sudden jumps between the three acts of the opera) and the most fun. Under the energetic baton of Stefan Solyom, the orchestra attacked the music from the outset and the resultant sound was glorious: whooping horns, trenchant brass and tramping, nicely syncopated lower strings as we got under way. As the melodic line unfolded, it became clear however that string portamento was going to be mostly restrained, Solyom eschewing an authentic Viennese lilt to the music in favour of a much more straight-down-the-middle classical concert performance. His beat was clear (and the orchestra wonderfully attentive to his changes of pace at the big moments) and his characterisation of the various episodes in the opera was secure: we heard Baron Ochs's retinue running rampage, the Act Two entry of Octavian for the presentation of the rose, and the various incarnations of the waltzes that run like a silver thread throughout the opera. 'Ohne mich' was, as often, a teasing delight.

What was missing however – and here I thought of those pin-dropping moments that one sometimes encounters with performances of Der Rosenkavalier in the opera house – was a true sense of diminuendo right down to pianissimo, the ebb and flow that Strauss achieves so magically when the protagonists are onstage before us.   The Snape Maltings acoustic is bright and resonant, and less really is sometimes more in the brick and wood auditorium that has seen so many historic performances. Solyom never really explored the quieter end of the orchestra's playing: and maybe he missed a trick. There is for example a wonderful passage towards the end of the Suite when the leader (the excellent Elizabeth Layton) and co-leaders play the three soprano solo lines against the orchestral accompaniment to the final Trio – but it passes for little if the orchestral background is too prominent. So, full marks for exuberance and joyous sound – but fewer for observance of the subtleties in Strauss's atmospheric reworking of a beloved score.

The Rachmaninoff was more straightforward. Performed in the now standard practically uncut version, the Second Symphony was played as the lush, late Romantic Russian series of tone poems that it constantly threatens to be. Solyom gave it all some structure, and kept it moving along throughout, but allowing every section of the orchestra its head throughout, he constantly skirted the danger of a descent into film score territory; brooding and ascetic it was not.

Rachmaninoff wrote the Second Symphony while staying in Dresden between 1906 and 1908, five years after he had written his hugely successful Second Piano Concerto and only a year or so before Richard Strauss embarked on composition of Der Rosenkavalier.Ten years on from the failure of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff paid particular attention to the form and thematic unity of his second major symphonic work, and the orchestra, the dynamics of their playing notwithstanding, made a convincing case for the work as a finely crafted piece of orchestral writing. The syncopated horn and string passages of the second movement, the fluent clarinet solo work of Yann Ghiro in the third, and the orchestral ensemble in the ever-more exciting finale, all spoke volumes for a conductor and orchestra playing with assurance and competence.

There are passages in the Second Symphony that recall vividly the orchestral accompaniment to the Second Piano Concerto, and hearing them without a percussive solo instrument to the fore can be faintly disquieting.   (It is no accident that a piano part has been added to the score and from 2008 is being made available by Boosey & Hawkes as Rachmaninoff's Fifth Piano Concerto!) Solyom had the orchestra play these passages for all they are worth and in the Maltings they sounded magnificent. The only thing that I felt was lacking was an overall sense of shape and structure – that invisible thread that the greatest conductors somehow manage to spin around the orchestral whole. But under Solyom it was that sort of performance overall – a celebration of fine playing, lush orchestral sound and devil take the doubters. As an opening fanfare for the Snape Proms, it ticked most of the boxes.

By Mike Reynolds

Boris Berezovsky plays Rachmaninoff's Fourth Piano Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra under Antonio Pappano at Snape Maltings on Thursday 21 August 2008