Virtuosic Scampering in Ravel, but Stravinsky and Respighi Fail to Excite

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, Stravinsky, Ravel, Respighi: Steven Osborne (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.11.2014 (SRT)

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1919)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Respighi: Pines of Rome

Having one orchestral showpiece in a programme is treat enough, but to have both The Firebird and Pines of Rome in the one evening is such largesse as to feel sated! They both sounded great, of course: with the RSNO that’s all but inevitable. I loved the big moments, such as the thunderous climax of Pines and the Infernal Dance of Firebird, but what stuck out most were the little touches, such as the delightful bassoon in Firebird’s Berceuse, or the solo clarinet at the Janiculum. For colour and impact, the RSNO remain pretty hard to beat.

And yet both pieces left me feeling strangely unexcited. The Firebird, in particular, can take you on a journey that few 20-minute-long pieces of music can, with its kaleidoscopic colours and its often exciting rhythms; yet Oundjian’s reading left me feeling slightly cold. It was as if we were being talked through the score in a most interesting way, but there was little that got me genuinely excited or which made the scalp prickle. The Firebird’s Dance bounced along amicably enough and the Infernal Dance came… and then went. As in Pines, the whole thing felt just a little formulaic. At the end of The Firebird’s finale, some conductors are drenched in sweat after all the power they’ve conjured up, but it sounded as though Oundjian had scarcely quickened his pulse.

More excitement arrived with Steven Osborne’s jazzy, excitable reading of Ravel’s Piano Concerto. His virtuosic scampering seemed to energise the rest of the orchestra in the outer movements, and then the Adagio seemed to provide a masterclass in meditative stillness, the piano leading the way in a thoughtful reverie, with the orchestra then following as if drawn on by the golden line of the music.

To my surprise, it was probably Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro that I enjoyed most, the thick, breathy sound of the RSNO strings managing to convey both the wistful emotion and the relaxed spaciousness of the composer’s vision.

Simon Thompson

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