Peter Oundjian Provides Food for Thought with Mackenzie, Martinů and Mozart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mackenzie, Martinů, Mozart: Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.10.2011 (SRT)

Mackenzie: Benedictus
Martinů: Symphony No. 6, Fantasies Symphoniques
Mozart: Requiem

Next year Peter Oundjian will take up his post as RSNO Music Director. It’s a funny situation when you know you will take up a job but have a lot of time to get ready for it, and it’s interesting for us audiences to speculate on what his tenure in Scotland will be like.

This interesting programme gives us a lot of food for thought. It was a nice touch to begin with Alexander Mackenzie’s Benedictus, a Scottish work from 1888, originally written for violin and piano but here played in the composer’s own orchestration. It’s a rich, if rather simple piece, consisting mostly of a long melody and a very fat line for unison violins. It’s pleasant on the ear but cloys ever so slightly, like too much chocolate.

Quite the opposite is true of Martinů’s Sixth Symphony, commissioned by the Boston Symphony in 1956. This is clearly a distinctive 20th Century sound world – rather different from the Martinů of his other symphonie – starker, almost jagged in places. The symphony consists mostly of vividly contrasting blocks of sound, so different as to be almost schizophrenic at times. Confidence and lyricism sit cheek by jowl with shuddering nervousness. It’s a difficult piece to hold together, though Oundjian managed it… just. Occasionally the strength of the symphonic argument can be lost in the stark juxtapositions, but then, Martinů’s music isn’t exactly coming down with enthusiastic advocates in Scotland and it will be interesting to see if this is an indicator of the diet Oundjian will bring to the RSNO when he takes up his new job.

Oundjian chose a surprisingly small orchestra for Mozart’s Requiem – decidedly a chamber size – but having a choir of 120 led to serious problems of balance, especially in the climaxes of the Sequenza and Hostias where the orchestra was often drowned out. It’s a pity that the tone of the chorus and orchestra, both lovely in themselves, mitigated against one another so as to diminish the overall effect. The best moments came from the outstanding quartet of soloists, as fine as any I have heard in this work. Matthew Rose’s thrilling bass made the hair stand up in the Tuba mirum, keeping his clarion clarity even (or especially) at the bottom of his range, while the clean, soulful tenor of Benjamin Hullet marks him out as someone to watch. The plangent tones of Jurgita Adamonyté’s mezzo contrasted well with the stark beauty of Sarah-Jane Brandon’s bright, sometimes austere soprano. The moments where the quartet sang together, especially in the Recordare, were the most spiritual – and thrilling – of the whole evening.

Simon Thompson