United Kingdom Harris, Strauss, Beethoven: Marita Sølberg (soprano), Renata Pokupić (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor), Stephan Loges (bass-baritone), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, RSNO Chorus, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.5.2016. (SRT)
Harris: remiscipate (world premiere)
R Strauss: Four Last Songs
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
This is a concert that began with two endings. Lillie Harris’ remiscipate is inspired by the destruction of the famous Red Road flats in Glasgow, and the music evokes, in her words “the enormous swirling dust clouds” that engulfed the surrounding area after the demolition. Consequently, the music features lots of rumblings, trills and chromatic slides, not to mention many glissandi. The music constantly moves, like the dust clouds, but for me it didn’t seem to move in a very interesting direction, and while I found it evocative and effective in its own way, it was ultimately rather empty (like the flats!). That said, Harris is currently in her final year of an undergraduate composition course at the Royal College of Music so, while the piece itself didn’t impress me, it does speak of a lot of potential. Harris is part of the RSNO’s new Composer’s Hub, a project aimed at emerging composers which gives them the opportunity to spend the season with the orchestra and, ultimately, to write for them. It’s a promising new adventure for the RSNO, and shows that their new hall in Glasgow has not only given them a new performing space but is rightly expanding their boundaries of what they can do.
The other, much more familiar ending is the death-haunted world of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, played here with the most beautiful orchestral tone, led by strings that sounded as though they’d been steeped in Strauss’s world for decades. Oundjian shaped the music lovingly, allowing it to breathe and develop naturally, particularly towards the tricky end of Im Abendrot, and the whole thing felt suffused with a spirit of transcendence and also a little regret, lending an extra edge of beauty to the horn and violin solos, and even the trilling flutes that close the set. Marita Sølberg does not have the most instantly luxurious voice, but it became richer as the cycle progressed, and I loved the way her voice seemed to become subsumed into the orchestral texture in the final song.
Few symphonic endings pack as big a punch as Beethoven’s Ninth, and the RSNO chorus relished their role, sounding much better than I’ve heard them in a very long time. There was an element of the football crowd in their opening shouts of Freude! and they kept up the energy thrillingly throughout, losing none of the necessary precision. The quartet of soloists was very good, Stephan Loges crowning the team in a pretty much ideal performance of the opening recitative and verse. Ben Johnson sounded bright and clean in the “Turkish” section, and the ladies graced the top beautifully. It was the orchestra that was most consistently impressive, though, and Oundjian seemed to have brought an extra edge of excitement to their work. The first movement was assertive and hard-edged, while the Scherzo bounded with cosmic energy and the finale seemed to breathe expansively, Oundjian refusing to let the tempo become too saggy. Then in the finale’s opening the cellos and basses really dug into their opening recitative, and the joy theme seemed to grow organically through all of its various iterations. It was an exciting and wholly appropriate end to their season, which sees them half-way through their 125th anniversary year.
Incidentally, this programme was repeated in Glasgow on Saturday night and, in a first for the orchestra, was live-streamed online. You can see it here until Saturday 4th June.