Thomas Søndergård opens RSNO’s new season with festive and magical performances of Russian music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Bruno Delepelaire (cellist), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 23.10.2021. (GT)

Thomas Søndergård (c) Andy Buchanan

Matthew RookeThe Isle is Full of Noises! (world premiere)
ShostakovichFestive Overture, Op.96
TchaikovskyVariations on a Rococo Theme, Op.33
StravinskyThe Firebird (1910)

In opening the 2021-2022 season, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra continue in introducing Scottish composers in their programmes, while this is positive and to be encouraged, it is a pity that only a few minutes of music is heard from the composers presented in the RSNO Scotch Snaps series which is supported by the John Ellerman Foundation. Last year, during the RSNO’s digital concerts, it was possible to hear more extended pieces by contemporary composers, together with neglected music. Matthew Rooke is better known as the former Director of the Scottish Arts Council, and he has written two stage works, including an opera for the Lammermuir Festival in 2018.

It is difficult to say a great deal about Rooke’s piece as it lasted about the same time as it took him to come onto the stage and return to his seat. At barely two minutes, was it worthwhile having this open the concert? In fairness, the music was bright, sparkling with rhythms suggesting an affinity with Leonard Bernstein.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture can seem empty when it is played leisurely, but here it was given a startlingly vibrant performance. Thomas Søndergård pointed out in his pre-concert introduction that it was the Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson who gave the UK premiere of the piece in 1962 when the composer was present during the Edinburgh International Festival devoted to his music. In just about everything that he wrote – from his earliest years – Shostakovich could create music of brilliant quality, and in the Festive Overture, he exhibits his most joyful and upbeat music without appearing vacuous and bland as were other overtures written by composers of the period. Rather than the dark gravitas and tragedy of his symphonies, this work continues in the happy, optimistic mood of the orchestral music of his ballets of the 1930s, The Bolt and The Golden Age, and the two piano concertos. More than anything, it shows off his inventiveness in packing so much orchestral brilliance into a short five minutes.

The French-born cellist Bruno Delepelaire began playing the cello at the age of five years. His first lessons were with Erwan Fauré, after which he studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Philippe Muller. In 2012 he went to Berlin to continue his training under Jens Peter Maintz at the University of the Arts and under Ludwig Quandt at the Orchestra Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic. Presently, he is a principal cellist at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He plays a cello made by Matteo Goffriller, on loan from the Karolina Blaberg Foundation.

In the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, it was clear how much this orchestra enjoys an affinity with both romantic and modern Russian music. And when the soloist played the opening chords – it was clear this performance would be something quite special. Delepelaire’s tone and the range of colour he captured from his instrument were astonishing in both technique and expression. Several passages were heart-breaking in their melancholy, notably in the third D minor variation Andante, in which the cellist was well supported by Katherine Bryan’s flute and Adrian Wilson’s oboe, and in the fourth variation, Allegro vivo, there was a notable passage between the clarinet of Timothy Orpen and Bryan that brought out some of the ballet-like textures of Tchaikovsky’s score. The cadenza was very touching followed again by fine solos from flute and clarinet, before the final brisk and cheerfully splendid variation armed with a new playful idea from the soloist led to the energetic and vibrant Coda in A major.

It is not often that we hear the original 1910 ballet version of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and certainly the mysteriously cautious opening in the Introduction by the double basses was enthralling, with the mood enhanced by the violas and cellos. Throughout the First Tableau, there were several notable moments in which we heard stunningly world-class playing from both orchestra and in the solos. This was especially in the fifth number where the Firebird begs Ivan to spare its life and it is expressed in a melody for solo viola (Tom Dunn) that then develops into a colourful passage on the strings led by Maya Iwabuchi. In the sixth number – with the Supplication of the Firebird – the expression of freedom won by the Firebird was heavenly voiced in a wonderful folk-like horn solo by Christopher Gough. In the princesses’ graceful round dance there were some charmingly prolonged solos by Adrian Wilson on oboe and the cello of Betsy Taylor. Throughout this performance, Søndergård was masterly in his holding together this challenging score and grasping the different nuances in the textures of the music – embracing the folklore nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov together with Stravinsky’s modernism. It was remarkable to listen to how Søndergård eloquently shaped the phrasing in the different sections of the orchestra.

In the Berceuse, there was a beautifully calming passage from the bassoon of David Hubbard introducing the Firebird lulling the ogres into a deep sleep. Out of the darkness and the stillness that followed, there emerged a noble horn melody from Gough as if heralding a new era. At last, in the Second Tableaux, Kashchei’s palace and all his magical creations vanish, the petrified knights awaken, and the princesses regain their freedom. As in a typical Russian fairy tale, everything ends in happiness and joy suitably bringing this superb concert to a festive close. The degree of cohesion and unity by the orchestra was often revelatory – one felt a tangible excitement among the large audience at seeing and hearing the orchestra again in the concert hall. Following many months of listening to music at home, hearing an orchestra of one hundred musicians live was something which can hardly be described coherently.

In the period prior to the lockdown in March last year, this orchestra was in top form, now back in the Royal Concert Hall, it is clear they are once again producing world-class standards in performance. This evening was a propitious opening to a new orchestral season that will be keenly anticipated in the coming months.

Gregor Tassie

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