Saariaho: Orion; Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini; Nielsen: Symphony no. 4, 'The Inextinguishable'

Lazic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Søndergård

Usher Hall, 11 November 2010 3.5 stars

Dejan Lazic

The news of the week is that Simon Woods is moving on from his post as chief executive of the RSNO, to become executive director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. While Stéphan Denève has been the face of the RSNO's remarkable transformation over the last five years, Woods deserves enormous credit for successfully matching the necessary resources to the orchestra's ambitions. Naturally, with Denève's impending departure, and sharp budget cuts in the air, these are nervous times. Let's hope that steady nerves prevail.

Steady nerves, because challenging and exciting programmes such as tonight's entail a degree of risk which doesn't always pay off. Against tonight's satisfied audience, there was space for a good many more—something that has come to be an unusual sight at RSNO concerts recently.

Kaija Saariaho's Orion epitomises the notion of risk and reward at its best: one of the more important orchestral scores of recent years, I remember hearing it via the TV from the Proms a year or two back. While the first movement, 'Memento mori', made a strong impression, the second, 'Winter sky', and the third, 'Hunter', didn’t come over so well. Hearing the work performed live, it was clear why: the tremendously vivid yet delicately nuanced textures inhabit the acoustic realm forcefully. For instance, it is hard to imagine the long organ pedal in the second movement feeling at all oppressive from the comfort of one’s armchair, while the dazzling array of tuned percussion—just about every tuned percussion instrument that you might think of—shimmers like aural fairy-dust.

Certainly the harmonic density, multiplied through liberal use of quarter tones, makes the work tough listening for some concertgoers; maybe the mesmeric, almost hallucinatory simplicity of 'Memento mori' eases the experience. For those of us who relish the modern symphony orchestra being pushed to its technical frontiers, this performance eloquently stated its case.

I suspect there's an element of risk in programming Rachmaninov's Rhapsody, but in a different way. The famous variation 18 notwithstanding, the Rhapsody is not as well known as the two concertos (viz. the second and third); indeed, by Rachmaninov's standards, it is something of a knockabout, one for the toybox. The Paganini theme and the plainsong melody dies irae stand in for an orthodox first theme/second theme relationship in a curiously insouciant way. Still, between them, Thomas Søndergård and soloist Dejan Lazic brought off a nice blend of light touch and effective pacing, with Lazic giving an immaculate, sparkling performance.

Poignant, at the interval, to watch the marimba and its cousins being wrapped up and put away before the Nielsen. Such a big and sonorous instrument collapsed to a heap of bones in no time at all. It was one of those things about concert-hall life, the removal of the first half's percussion in a way dramatized the austerity of Neilsen's score. You wait years for a performance, then two come along in the space of a couple of months. Unfortunately that previous outing was also the occasion of a sparse turnout—a good deal sparser than tonight. Enquiries at the time suggested that people simply don't know the work. On some levels that is puzzling, but in an age where people acquire their familiarity through the radio and recordings, it is a work whose assertiveness commands the kind of attention that domestic listening maybe doesn't offer.

The pity about tonight's performance was that it confirmed just how good the summer outing was. It would be nice to think that Sakami Oramo might be on the RSNO's radar for the vacancy Denève leaves—we'll see in the fullness of time, no doubt. Søndergård, by comparison, seemed eager to leave his own mark on the score, his reading as a result struck me as over-conducted, marred by interrupted lines and deadened arcs. Bizarrely, in some passages of the first movement, he drew a sound that more closely resembled a Viennese coffee house than a Baltic concert hall. There and in the finale, he made the basic mistake of thinking that extra speed equals extra excitement. And yet there was a real lyricism and warmth in places too, most notably in the third movement. In all, this was not a poor performance by any means; just a little disappointing.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Dejan Lazic

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