RSNO / Macdonald

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A fortnight ahead of its official season-opening concerts under Music Director Thomas Sondergard, the RSNO is covering a lot of ground with its pre-season fixtures to celebrate the return of live music before a real audience.

Following Sunday’s appearance by a fully match-fit RSNO Chorus, singing Haydn’s Creation in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall under the baton of Gregory Batsleer, here was a showcase for the orchestra’s new principal clarinet, Timothy Orpen, and Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald – a programming also visiting Dundee and Aberdeen.

The headline attraction was Mozart’s perennially-popular Clarinet Concerto, played by Orpen on the basset instrument with its extra notes at the bottom. The composer was working at the cutting-edge of technology at the time, helping develop a new instrument that was already notable for its range, and in recent years it has become much more common to perform it on the precise instrument intended, or at least a modern equivalent.

With a little ornamentation by the soloist, this was a beautifully-measured, precise, but quite unemotional performance of an old favourite. Orpen is a terrific player and Macdonald kept a very steady pulse in the strings under the lovely melody of the slow movement. He is a conductor of the clearest intentions who would surely brook no impression of vagueness of interpretation, and there seemed a slight tendency to see the work as a laboratory demonstration of the clarinet’s capabilities – but then that may well be exactly how Mozart saw it.

The works around the concerto in the programme were far from obvious choices, but both were beautifully orchestrated for an edition of the RSNO only slightly larger than required for the Mozart. It was a real delight of this concert to hear that range of musical colour in the bright acoustic of the orchestra’s new space in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall complex.

The Overture to Sibelius’s Karelia Music, his first major work, is less often heard than the Karelia Suite he later condensed from the whole thing. The suite makes more of the Intermezzo melody that everyone knows – the only original tune in the whole work – but it does appear here. What was just as audible in this performance was how fully-realised the orchestration skills of the composer were, with his symphonies years in the future.

The Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams sits half way through his varied orchestral output, but in 1943 many saw it as a valedictory work. In 2021 it is hard to say where his works sit in the canon, aside from the regular poll-topping victories of The Lark Ascending as a popular favourite.

Macdonald and the RSNO made the most persuasive case for the Fifth. The third movement Romanza is most recognisable as the work of The Lark’s composer, with its opening solo for Henry Clay’s cor anglais and, more obviously, leader Lena Zeliszewska’s violin at its end.

Elsewhere, though, it is a complex, fascinating work, mixing modernism and the pastoral, with the spotlight falling on every section of the orchestra at one time or another, and rich combinations of them in the scoring.

It is easy to hear why, after the brash Fourth, the wartime audience heard its successor as some sort of summing-up. In fact Vaughan Williams would continue to confound expectations of his orchestral writing until shortly before his death, fifteen years later.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Rory Macdonald by Robin Clewly