RSNO Bring Colour and Spirituality to 20th Century Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen, Beethoven, Rachmaninov: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.11.2013 (SRT)

Messiaen:          Les offrandes oubliées
Beethoven:        Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor
Rachmaninov:   Symphonic Dances


The Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninov’s final work, and he probably intended it that way.  It’s possible to see it as a summation of his life’s work, and it does contain his final (victorious) tussle with the Dies Irae theme that obsessed him throughout his career.  Listening to it tonight, however, it occurred to me that you could also think of it as his Concerto for Orchestra.  That’s helped by the fact that the RSNO have developed into a band of exceptional colourists, and recently I’ve frequently commented on their ability to bring a piece to life like a back-lit kaleidoscope.  That made them ideal for bringing alive the composer’s important solos, such as the saxophone in the first movement or the oboe and coranglais in the second.  As important, however, is the dazzling work of each section working as a unit; the gleaming brass, sparkling percussion and the rich, vibrato-laden, strings that seem to sing the composer’s rich vein of melody.  Not for nothing are these called dances, however, and Peter Oundjian conducted with a strong rhythmic pulse that brought them to life and seemed to intensify towards the end of the finale.

Those strings were also full of suggestion and power in Messian’s Offrandes Oubliées, a powerful spiritual evocation of the basics of the composer’s devout Catholic faith.  It was the meandering, sometimes hollow ring of the strings that brought so much power to the outer movements, a suggestion of a quest without and end, with the harmonics at the end providing a suggestive, eerie climax, even more so than the explosion that takes place in the central section.

RSNO favourite Nikolai Lugansky returned for Beethoven’s Emperor, which felt a little out of place in the centre of this otherwise 20th century programme.  It’s relatively rare, these days, to hear it played by a full scale symphony orchestra, and the gains came in the outer movements which had a welcome magisterial quality to the sound.  The string sound in the slow movement, while beautiful, was rather soft-focused, though this was quickly blown away with the onset of the finale.  Lugansky is a modest, understated maestro; an elegant presence rather than a barnstormer, but he plays Beethoven with consummate skill and he always interacts with the orchestra, with never any sense that one is dominating the other.  Maybe that’s why both orchestra and audience seem always to want him back for more.

Simon Thompson

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