Review: Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Peter Oundjian

First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2013

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

During his customary mid-concert chat to the audience, Peter Oundjian noted that Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra isn’t usually heard by anyone over than the age of about ten. (“Which excludes at least a few of you,” he teased the overwhelmingly silver-haired congregation.) Oundjian has a point, and he’s right to feature the Guide as ‘serious’ music – as the vivid and vivacious set of theme and variations that it is.

But his determination to assert that seriousness came across heavy-handed. The theme was too thick, too bulky, overlooking the fact that Purcell’s original was a hornpipe: a dance. Britten’s variations are deftly designed to show off each section of the orchestra and that they did here, with chirpy woodwinds, gutsy violins and honey-toned cellos. But the junctures between were often awkwardly handled and the work’s mighty culmination felt too easily earned, its impact lessened by the weight of the opening.

Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta demonstrated exactly how to keep a phrase light yet utterly gripping in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Her bow bounced along in a wicked, tight-sprung dance, with just the right acerbic bite for Shostakovich. Gabetta is a stylish, charismatic player who made this well-trodden piece sound completely her own. Oundjian didn’t conjure the depth of orchestral colour needed in the slow movement and ploughed through too many important nuances: where was the magic in the hushed return of the Moderato theme? Where was the orchestral swagger to match Gabetta’s in the finale?

In Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony he found more room for expression, with a nicely chunky Scherzo and a broad, defiant close. But by-and-large it was a plain account of Dvorak’s most darkly Brahmsian symphony.