Review: RSNO, Peter Oundjian, Steven Osborne

First published in the Guardian on 26 November, 2014

Now in his third season as music director, Peter Oundjian seems to have settled into a genial, uninteresting rapport with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He goes in for glossy gestures and easy-to-digest interpretations. Beginnings, endings and big tunes are always emphatic. There’s headline impact.

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This concert opened with a heavy romp through Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. The RSNO strings sounded rich, ardent and scrappy round the edges; Maya Iwabuchi led the soloists (the piece was written as a baroque-style concerto grosso for the LSO string section principals) with a vibrato so thick you could stand a spoon in it.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919) contained some beautiful solo playing from the winds – Oundjian gave them space to expand and sing – but he conjured little of the fairy tale’s magic or the ballet score’s sense of physical buoyancy. The Firebird’s dance was measured and earthbound; the Round was strangely flat; that exquisitely hushed, glittering moment before the final horn solo had no sense of impending wonder. Respighi’s Pines of Rome fared better. There were some neatly-drawn snapshots, especially the cheerful sunlight of the Villa Borghese.

Steven Osborne’s account of Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto was in a different ballpark, though, an entirely personal take full of subtle colour and insight. In the buzzy, ricocheting first movement he explored the contours of each phrase like a jazz musician probing at the corners of a new line. In the finale his touch was zippy and bright – Oundjian had trouble keeping the orchestra up to pace. The slow movement unfurled in a simple arc, as natural and intimate as conversation. For an encore Osborne played Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy in an arrangement by Bill Evans and sounded utterly relaxed. He is one of those artists who can turn a concert hall into a living room.