Confident, Stylish Playing from Scotland’s National Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Borisova-Ollas, Schumann, Dvořák: Barry Douglas (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Christoph Altstaedt (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25.01.2013 (SRT)

Borisova-Ollas: Open Ground
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8

It was all change tonight except for the programme. Both the originally advertised conductor and soloist had cancelled, but their replacements were so good that no-one was complaining. Barry Douglas brought his own touch of flair to the Schumann concerto, playing with a silky but clean sense of legato but pulling out the stops for the big moments of the finale, despite some occasional lapses in ensemble.

He is well known in these islands, but Christoph Altstaedt is a really interesting new talent. Currently director of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck and the Düsseldorf Opera, he’s young, refreshing and interesting to watch. He shaded back the orchestra’s playing in the concerto, clearly giving the precedence to the piano, but this created a strangely satisfying harmonic picture that suited the music very well, and the big climaxes were still allowed to breathe sufficiently.

He had a marvellous way with the Dvořák symphony, too. Here the dynamics of the energy were almost reversed from the Schumann, with energy and vigour sitting close to the surface, both in the exuberant major sections of the first movement and the more stormy sections of the development. However, he let them off the leash to create a storming finale, the brass in particular letting rip at all the right moments. The highlight for me was Dvořák’s lovely Adagio, here unfolding, initially at least, in a tentative, questioning manner, supported by some sensational string playing which surged and pulsed its way through the main melody.

Open Ground was another refreshing discovery. Victoria Borisova-Ollas is a Vladivostok-born composer, currently living in Sweden, and Open Ground is, effectively, an evocation of an earthquake, inspired by Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. As you might expect given the subject matter, it works primarily through rhythm, but it does so in an interesting, organic manner with the jagged string writing punctuated by colourful comments from the winds. It’s tonal, though not especially melodic until a big (and highly effective) theme for unison strings and brass towards the end, and the structure of the work to me seemed cyclical rather than a linear depiction of a catastrophe. In fact, it reminded me of film music a lot of the time, and it’s something I’d happily hear again.

With a new composer and a new conductor, this was a very strong start to 2013 for the Royal Scottish National Symphony Orchestra. Their New Year tour to China has obviously done the orchestra a power of good because tonight they sounded supremely confident and stylish.

Simon Thompson