Laser-sharp Precision in Oundjian’s Interpretations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Rachmaninov, Brahms: Natasha Paremski (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 12.10.2012 (SRT)

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Only two weeks into Peter Oundjian’s tenure as RSNO music director, it’s already interesting to speculate on patterns which may be developing. I commented last week on the precision of the orchestral playing, and that’s the main thing that struck me tonight too. There wasn’t a hint of aural fog; instead a determination to play each note with laser-sharp accuracy and total clarity. Even in the Paganini Rhapsody, each phrase was clearly delineated and thoroughly pointed. The strings didn’t lose their lush ultra-Romanticism, and the famous eighteenth variation was a sensual treat, but they were paired with clipped winds and glowing brass with a notable gleam to the overall texture. The same was true in Britten’s interludes. A slightly sour edge to the violins in Dawn was married to a rich swell from the brass, later giving way to impressionistic shimmering in the whole string section for the Moonlight interlude.

It’s says a lot that, in a performance of the Paganini Rhapsody, the most striking thing was the sound of orchestra rather than the soloist. That’s not to undermine the playing of Natasha Paremski, though, who snaked her way across the keyboard with a seamless legato that shunned ostentation. It’s refreshing to hear the work played with genuine musical sensitivity, with no self-conscious fireworks and an ear for beauty above all else, something which also came through in her playing of the C minor Etude-Tableau, rich and dark with no hint of self-aggrandisement.

It will be interesting to see if Oundjian carves out a repertoire niche for himself. His predecessor, Stéphane Denève, was famous for his interpretations of French repertoire. Oundjian’s Canadian heritage doesn’t easily lend itself to any national school, though it’s interesting to note how heavy the focus has been on Russian music in his opening concerts. After a lacklustre reading of Brahms 3 last year, though, his interpretation of the first symphony was a total contrast. Here, like last week’s Shostakovich 11, he showed a much better feeling for the work’s architecture, particularly in the finale, where the gradations of dynamics and tempi felt natural and organic, dropping momentum for the first statement of the Alpine horn call, but gaining it inexorably for the coda. The thing that impressed me most, however, was the rich, chocolaty-brown string sound, particularly in the slow movement, but also in the big theme of the finale. Their skill in French repertoire is now well known, but who knew that the RSNO could sound so, well, Germanic? It’s this that makes me wonder where Oundjian really wants to take them. Even if it isn’t towards a national school, I want to see how that sound is going to develop, and how the orchestra’s versatility will develop under his leadership.

Simon Thompson