RSNO / Ollikainen

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The resilience and application of the international music community in the face of the continuing challenges of the pandemic are remarkable. Protocols prevented the Finnish artistic director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Eva Ollikainen, from making her debut with the RSNO a week previously, when the versatile Jonathan Stockhammer stepped in to take charge of her concert, including its Finnish and Icelandic music.

A week later it was the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor who was missing, and Ollikainen present on the podium to take on Elim Chan’s programme of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker preceded by the music of Maurice Ravel. Seat-of-the-pants stuff? You’d never have known it was anything but planned from the beautifully measured performances of everyone on stage, and that also included Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, who had stepped in at short notice to replace Bertrand Chamayou for Ravel’s Concerto in G, and the orchestral players, whose full-on schedule included a couple of Childrens Classic Concerts as well as their evening shows.

If Impressionism means anything in orchestral music, Ravel’s arrangement of his Une barque sur l’ocean, from his Miroirs set of piano pieces, is surely it. Requiring a vast ensemble, almost everyone playing throughout, it is filled with swells, ebbing and flowing, ripples and lappings. A gorgeous work and the perfect aperitif for the concerto that followed.

Whatever difficulties its composition presented, Ravel’s Concerto in G is a hugely atmospheric triumph that speaks to us now in the voice of a century ago, when jazz was the lingua franca of many a musical hipster. The arresting orchestration of the opening bars sets up the entrance of the soloist, speaking immediately of the era. Brass and wind interjections, redolent of big band music, are crucial to that atmosphere, but the soulful pianism of Perianes was at the heart of everything – a relaxed and masterful performance of a challenging work. Later on the warm-toned cor anglais of Henry Clay was the key second voice, and the entrance of the violas and cellos in the Adagio was particularly beautifully realised, before a finale that was brimming with energy. That ebullience was led by the soloist, who returned to the platform with a generous helping of De Falla by way of an encore.

There were also many elements to admire and enjoy in Ollikainen’s treatment of all the best-known bits in Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker ballet, but the sweet frosted topping on this selection box was the presence of the RSNO Junior Chorus, filling the choir stalls in a socially-distanced fashion.

The pairing with Ravel of this earlier master of orchestration made fine musical sense, and the conductor resisted any temptation towards lush Romantic excess. There can be a vast distance between concert performances of this score and the work of a pit band for a Christmas production at the Theatre Royal next door, but Ollikainen’s Nutcracker was one that recognised the discipline of working with dancers, and those young singers added their wordless contribution with the same precision.

Keith Bruce