Music review: RSNO European Tour

That the RSNO has been touring Europe these past seven days could so easily be viewed as significant in the most pessimistic of ways. Will they be the last British orchestra to do so before Brexit finally takes effect?
The quality of the RSNOs playing under musical director Thomas Søndergård was on show. Picture: Tom FinnieThe quality of the RSNOs playing under musical director Thomas Søndergård was on show. Picture: Tom Finnie
The quality of the RSNOs playing under musical director Thomas Søndergård was on show. Picture: Tom Finnie

RSNO, Audimax Der Universitât Regensburg ****

RSNO, Graf-Zeppelin Haus, Friedrichshafen ****

But there’s a more optimistic story to tell. The RSNO team, led by chief executive Alistair Mackie, are playing this as a golden opportunity to gain a more sustainable post-Brexit foot in the European Tour circuit with a view to creating not only a sustained presence and awareness among European audiences, venues and promoters, but in turn an income generator that will feed into the orchestra’s wider activity at home and further afield.

It’s safe to say that this current tour, which ended on Friday in the Bavarian waterfront town of Friedrichshafen, was planned as a showcase for all that is currently good about the RSNO: the quality of its playing under musical director Thomas Søndergård; and its regular association with Scots violinist Nicola Benedetti.

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Both were on show on Thursday in the beautiful town of Regensburg, which was the second last stop after a chain of concerts that has taken the orchestra on a criss-cross journey calling previously at Stuttgart, Antwerp, Aachen and Eindhoven.

The Regensburg concert took place in the strangest of halls, situated in the city’s university, a venue encased by rough concrete walls painted willy-nilly in a sporadic modernist fashion, yet the acoustic proved to be something very different.

In Vaughan Williams’ atmospheric Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, with the second small orchestra placed in a unit behind the main body, there was a warmth and delicacy to the all-string performance. Søndergård’s fluid shaping of the modal phrases, his tempter-like beckoning to the various solo players, and his insistence on the softest of pianissimos, exuded an ethereal beauty that cast a spell over the moment, not least the antiphonal otherworldliness created by the smaller band.

It paved the way for Benedetti’s entrance, and a performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto that - for a work she has played so many times - was anything but routine. It was a triumph of grace, inner warmth, dazzling dexterity and nuanced suppleness, underpinned by an orchestral performance that had density, strongly defined colour, yet never once overstepping the mark.

Benedetti’s encore - an enchanting, unaccompanied arrangement of Auld Lang Syne (using the original melody) - drew a melting silence, its heartfelt simplicity and tenderness hushing the near-capacity house.

Dvorak’s sunny Symphony No 8 also benefitted from Søndergård’s intuitive musicality and unswerving attention to detail, but this was a performance that ebbed and flowed at every possible level, palpably visible in the synchronised vigour of every musician on stage. While an initial encore of Sibelius’ Valse Triste offered an elegiac postscript, it was the closing Eightsome Reels, in Brian Fahey’s timeless arrangement, that signed off this penultimate concert in truly Scottish (some would say non-Brexit) style.

The story was much the same in a different programme performed the following night before a capacity crowd in Friedrichshafen’s Graf-Zeppelin Hall, which sits - spectacularly evident when the heavy January mist lifted - on the banks of Bodensee (Lake Constance) in a town most famous as the birthplace of the Zeppelin airship.

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Perhaps the most interesting observation from this concert was the Bavarian audience’s reserved reaction to Elgar’s Enigma Variations - one which had replicated itself, according to the players, among earlier audiences in the tour. It’s not that the work is too “English”, given the Brahmsian fingerprints that permeate its pages; perhaps it’s the “personalisation” of the variations - as musical caricatures of the composer’s friends - and their loose-limbed construction, that doesn’t quite translate. Still, nothing of this performance, which possessed jewel-like detail and enveloping emotional heat, failed to convey the essence of Elgar’s iridescent music.

The Vaughan Williams remained as the opener - a crisper version than Regensburg resulting from drier acoustics, gaining in definition what it lost in whispered ambience. And that same immediacy found Benedetti working hard to counter a consequential curtness in her performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with moments of ringing opulence. That she came out on top says as much for Søndergård’s artful shaping of the orchestral wash.

It’s worth noting that Benedetti, the minute she finished her performance, headed straight backstage to practise for Sunday’s scheduled appearance in Los Angeles at the Grammy Awards. We now know she won the Best Classical Instrumental Solo award for her Decca recording of Winton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto. Quite a week, then, for Scots musicians abroad, making significant headlines in both Europe and the USA. Ken Walton