RSNO Concert of Rich Treats Culminates with MacMillan Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom MacMillan, Szymanowski, Berlioz: Nicola Benedetti (violin), RSNO Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 18.3.2016. (SRT)

MacMillan: Little Mass (Scottish premiere)

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 2

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

We had lots of treats tonight, and rich ones at that!  The RSNO showed that they have lost none of their Gallic élan with a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique that recalled, for me, the glory days of Stéphane Denève’s triumphs in French music.  There was a persuasive sheen to the strings in the Scène aux Champs and refinement aplenty in the Ball Scene, which was then cast onto a cauldron of turmoil with a brazen March to the Scaffold and an almost indecently colourful Witches’ Sabbath.  Brilliant clarity of playing was combined with intelligent use of Berlioz’s spatial effects (funeral bells offstage, for instance) and energetic direction from Oundjian to make an all-round interpretation of Berlioz’s masterpiece that was pretty hard to criticise.

You could say the same about Nicola Benedetti’s take on Symanowski’s Second Violin Concerto.  She made her name playing the first concerto when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition back in 2004, but this is the first time she has played the second and, tackling it at this stage of her career, she brings a far greater wealth of experience and expertise to it.  I’ve said before that I have little time for or patience with Szymanowski’s hypersensualised sound world, but even my cynical soul found things to enjoy in this performance, especially Benedetti’s overarching lyricism and the refined silky smoothness that she brought to the first half of the piece.  The opening theme had a strangely noble, almost regal air to it whose elegance permeated the whole of the opening section, even while all sorts of crazy things were going on in the cadenza.  However, she wasn’t afraid to get her fingers dirty while embracing Szymanowski’s folk elements, with even a touch of the hurdy-gurdy in the Scherzo, before a surprisingly noble Mazurka and finale.  The sweeping orchestral sound that went with her was convincing and well-judged throughout.

The concert opened with the Scottish premiere of James MacMillan’s Little Mass, jointly commissioned by the RSNO, the RLPO and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It’s “little” both in the sense that is sets only three sections from the Latin Ordinary (the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) and in the sense that it needs little people to sing it, written as it is for children’s voices.  MacMillan has taken careful account of the particular needs of his performers, producing a work that is mostly very direct in its workings, with clear vocal lines and clear steps between notes, but which is in no way simplistic.  In fact, it’s the most instantly attractive work I’ve heard from him in years, not least due to the way he uses the orchestra to evoke an impressive range of textures and colours.  The Kyrie bears an acknowledged debt to Debussy, with shimmering textures and lush harmonies that are overtly impressionistic, even arguably a touch of gamelan texture, while the vocal line is rooted in the directness of plainchant with a few Eastern-sounding melismas.  The Sanctus begins with brass grandeur, and the choral line is repeatedly joyful, with some very effective “angel-babble” at Pleni sunt coeli, and a strangely jaunty wind march at its close.  The highlight of the work is the Agnus Dei, however, with its beautifully searching string introduction and a gorgeous mixture of textures with often deeply introspective orchestration.  As I said, it’s the most appealing work from MacMillan in a long time.  The orchestra bears the brunt of the “difficult” music, supporting the children while never undermining them, and the choral writing is strong because it is so varied, sometimes simplistic and sometimes challenging.  The RSNO Junior Chorus themselves did a great job in music that was far from easy.

Simon Thompson

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