Rameau had a long career as an opera composer even though he only got started once he'd reached the age of fifty. In the course of his remaining thirty years, he followed a path that we'd find familiar, the young radical becoming, over time, the old reactionary.
Yesterday's Dardanus, with the SCO, is from the earlier part of his career while tonight's Les Boreades dates from the very end, when the composer was in his eighties. As you might expect, questions about fashion are entirely absent, in style and in quality the later work matches the earlier one. Actually, though, one drawback about making suites from the operas' dance movements is that one ends up with an album a bit like in the heyday of pop music, when bands would release a couple of tracks as singles, and you'd weigh up whether you get better value for money buying the singles or waiting for the album. I mention it because the singles in Boreades would be the astonishing Contredanse en rondeau and the ebullient closing Contredanses très vives.
Sir Roger Norrington is of a similar vintage to that later Rameau, and of course he brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the performances he directs. What was most interesting, though, about the two Rameau outings was to observe that 'historically-informed' leaves plenty of room for the director's interpretation. Where Haïm brought elemental vigour, Norrington brought serenity and polish, the two orchestras sounding distinctively different in consequence. Nowhere was that serenity and polish more evident than in the first Contredanse, which he moulded into an exquisite demonstration of dynamic range as a dramatic resource. The second one, meanwhile, puts one in mind of another elderly composer's final fling — the closing of Verdi's Falstaff in its irrepressible joie de vivre.
Less than thirty years separate Rameau's Boreades from Haydn's Paris symphonies – a neat bit of programming, by the way, to fall in with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra 's season-long Auld Alliance theme – yet the intellectual gulf is enormous. The orchestral forces are fairly similar. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Rameau featured two clarinets, which Haydn does not employ. Otherwise, Norrington had the woodwinds stood at either side as for the Rameau, with two more double basses centre-back, now either side of the harpsichord, which remained on stage.
While it is fair to say that a suite from an opera and a symphony is not comparing like with like, it is nevertheless fascinating to hear how quickly the classical style had evolved, even though the thought about Rameau the reactionary acknowledges that other developments were already in train. Haydn's score boasts all the practical skill and inventive musicianship that marks his mature style, alongside, needless to say, the witty élan which Norrington seems particularly to relish.
In what was definitely a concert of two halves – almost of two orchestras, one might say — the stage was rearranged for the Brahms in order to accommodate a vastly expanded string section complemented by quadruple woodwinds in the same setup as that used by Norrington on his previous visit with the RSNO for Schumann's Second Symphony. That is, the double basses were elevated at the centre-back to great effect where one is accustomed to seeing the percussion section arrayed.
Spectacular though the forces were, the Brahms was a bit of an anti-climax. The typical density of Brahms' orchestral textures is vulnerable to becoming muddied should the ensemble slip even slightly out of perfect synchronization, and one might suspect that rehearsing in effect two orchestras led to a bit of a loss of focus. Nevertheless, those peak moments that make Brahms so beloved were undeniably impressive at this scale.