Mozart: Don Giovanni Overture; Brahms: Violin Concerto; Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4

Gluzman, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Oundjian

Usher Hall, 1 April 2010 4.5 stars

Vadim Gluzman

Once again the RSNO surpassed itself, this time with a vibrant reading of Vaughan Williams' underappreciated fourth symphony. Hard on the heels of their stirring performance of Mahler's 6th a couple of weeks ago, and under the guest baton of Peter Oundjian, their high standard continues to impress.

Still, there was something odd, in a hard-to-explain way, about the first half. The other week I was remarking that under Stéphane Denève's leadership, the RSNO is developing into a unit of international calibre. The present tense indicates work in progress, but what does international calibre mean? How will we know when we've got there?

A full hall is certainly a positive indicator. The orchestra reports a 50% growth in Edinburgh audiences over the last five years, with under-26s strongly represented. Programming already compares favourably (see link to 2010–11 season announcement below) in its breadth, to the point where one might suggest that other orchestras are looking in for tips.

Nevertheless, the first half exposed a certain fragility near the surface. Nothing serious by any means, but I noticed, in the slow movement of the Brahms, some of the wind chords being tuned on the fly. That last bit of polish is something that makes the difference.

In one dimension the solution is simple: more preparation time; the response is correspondingly obvious: where's the budget coming from? In another dimension, however, the arguments are more subtle. Given that the second half performance was near-immaculate, this is obviously not about competence. Rather, the thought arises from a pattern in which this particular problem seems (as a general observation) to recur in Brahms' slow movements, that maybe Brahms gets a bit taken for granted?

Corresponding to that thought, it was disappointing to notice that little if anything had been preserved from the session on historically-informed performance with Roger Norrington before Christmas. I must admit that I had the impression that the point of that exercise was to inform the orchestra, but on tonight's evidence one has to assume that instead it was to inform the audience. Okay, so what is the audience supposed to do with that information?

Clearly, it would take some effort to coordinate a programme that mixes playing styles and orchestral layouts, bearing in mind the traffic of visiting conductors and soloists. It's a puzzle that leads me to a recent post by Anne Midgette, blogging on the Washington Post's Classical Beat (23 March) about the notion of the curator as it might be applied to concert life.

The RSNO already works with an animateur, Paul Rissmann, on a programme aimed at developing younger audiences. The curatorial role, though, would be more closely engaged in developing thematic strands through a season, bringing relevant expertise to bear on specific aspects of the performances and their context. Perhaps such people would also be able to develop correlations with other cultural enterprises when the opportunity permits.

Not that there was anything wrong, exactly, with tonight's performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni overture. It's just that it seemed meaningless and unengaged. For that matter, there was much to admire in the Brahms, not least a superb solo performance by Vadim Gluzman. Indeed, apart from the minor blemishes in the slow movement this was an attractively shaped, luminous and persuasive reading. Undoubtedly Peter Oundjian's own gifts as a violinist informed the interpretation.

Gluzman has a singular presence on stage, with a talent that certain actors have for stealing the scene without having been given any lines. While the orchestra plays he prowls, paying close and demonstrative attention; when called upon, his virtuosity and tone is stunning. He received eloquent support—notably, in the second movement, thanks to sensitive cameos from principal oboe Emmanuel Lavalle.

Taking a leaf from Denève's book, Oundjian preceded the Vaughan Williams with an introductory chat. One can take the 'health warning' in good part—the symphony is not, he pointed out, typical of the pastoral Vaughan Williams—but I wonder what proportion of the audience would actually have been startled?

Nevertheless, the performance was a real treat. I'm not sure that I agree with the characterization of the work as 'dark'. Certainly it is unexpectedly plangent—at least, seen from the perspective of the Fantasias, The Lark Ascending, and the folk-suffused earlier symphonies. Still, rather than darkness, one can find an exuberant liberation granted by exposure to the European mainstream afforded by the dawn of radio broadcast. It is as though the European sensibility enables Vaughan Williams to view the staple elements of his technique from a fresh perspective. One can still hear the folk-inflected melodies, the dancing rhythms, the village wind-bands and suchlike, but energized in a new and compelling form.

The dazzling result was superbly marshalled by Oundjian and the orchestra, giving the symphony an urgent, driving momentum that was sustained throughout to superb effect. Let's hope that some of the other Vaughan Williams symphonies, notably the 6th (now there's dark), turn up in future schedules.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Vadim Gluzman


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