Benedetti: Oundjian: RSNO (Usher Hall: 7 October ’16)

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“Overall, an evening of first class playing and sheer joy.  The bar for the rest of the season has been set high”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Nae Bad

A steady swarm of eager concertgoers approached the Usher Hall and filled its bars, stairwells and ultimately seats on Friday night for the RSNO’s opening concert of their 2016/17 season. Effectively it was a full house, with almost all the choir stalls taken. Either way, the joint was heaving.

The star attraction was, of course, the superlative Nicola Benedetti with whom the city and Orchestra feel a strong affiliation, which she charmingly reciprocated in a short speech at the end of her bravura performance. This notwithstanding, the programme itself was a romantic blockbuster designed to pack them in, though the choice of starter was open to question.

Like a gourmet meal, there is a growing tendency in concerts to serve up an amuse bouche before the appetiser, and on this occasion the band put on Khachaturian’s Waltz from Masquerade as a four minute intro. Whilst undoubtedly Khachaturian stands comparison with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov as a Romantic composer and fellow Russian (albeit Georgian) this was by no means a romantic work, and frankly served the rest of the programme ill, getting us in the wrong frame of mind altogether. Charmingly rather galumphing and of the fairground genre, it needed more power from the strings and less from the brass and did little for us.

Then came Nicola in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto , supported by the discipline and control of Peter Oundjian, and the excellent, well-balanced and complementary playing of the orchestra, that forced me to reappraise my entire attitude to this work several notches upwards. Never a grande oeuvre such as the Beethoven or Brahms, or as lush as the Bruch, the Tchaikovsky has always sat in my mind along the lighter end of the scale, like the Mendelssohn. Played as well as it was on the night, this concerto can take its place among the greats. Why? The limitations of the work remain -“a little showy” being a common criticism – but it was the playing that effected the transition. Benedetti’s long melodic lines, crystal clarity even playing in the highest of positions, and sheer ability to bring out the all the detail and nuances brought greater insight of the work than I have heard before. The orchestra gave a perfect, accurate and empathetic accompaniment, with excellent woodwind and brass in particular.

It was in Rachmaninov’s Symphony No2 that the strings really came into their own in a performance that was never self indulgent nor schmaltzy, but considered, well executed and disciplined so that unlike the Tchaikovsky the music spoke for itself. And what music! The first two movements are in fact quite complex as various themes develop, all of which were well handled, as the tension builds and is eventually rewarded with the fabulous, soaring third movement Adagio. A skilfully disciplined slow build-up under the iron grip of Oundjian held it all together brilliantly until the grand theme was unleashed, and here again not over done, but deeply moving with quite exceptional playing, feeling and discipline working hand in hand. Too often the final Allegro Vivace is frankly a bit of an anti climactic chore that one has to endure to round off the symphony, but  even at the end of a demanding night the RSNO really got into it and gave the movement a vivacity and brio I have rarely heard: glorious brass, hectic strings, all heading towards a spendidly exotic conclusion in the full romantic vein. Overall, an evening of first class playing and sheer joy. The bar for the rest of the season has been set high. Bring it on!

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 7 October)

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