RSNO / Davis

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica is about anything, beyond setting a template for many future scores to suggest pictures of frozen desert in sound, it is about orchestration, and in Glasgow on Saturday night it was the culmination of an evening that was devoted to exploring the epic noise a symphony orchestra, with the additions of an organ and a choir for that piece, can make.

Although Elgar’s Enigma Variations are remembered for two big tunes – a melodic dimension the Vaughan Williams does not really share – it is also a work that is about the sound of an orchestra. The dedication of each part of it to specific individuals might make an interesting programme note, but it is more or less irrelevant to the performance of the music, and that was apparent all through Sir Andrew Davis’s direction of the work. As it unrolled, he did acknowledge brief pauses between the movements, but he was always eager to get on with the next section and keep the shape of the whole work in focus. It was a fluid approach that presented Nimrod in context, and avoided sentiment and cheesiness.

The joy of working with a full symphony orchestra was also at the heart of the concert’s world premiere of Jasper Dommett’s Dreams of Isolation. Dommett may be very young, and still studying, but this was far from a novice work. It gloried in the possibilities afforded by being part of the RSNO’s Composer’s Hub project and the huge swells of sound a stage-full of players can make. Created during the pandemic, here was sonic evidence of the liberation some artists found during lockdown in the freedom and space to think big thoughts beyond the strictures of timetables and agendas.

While the orchestra, clad in t-shirts the colours of the Ukrainian flag as a gesture of support to that country’s people, played its heart out on those works, things came sightly unstuck when the musicians reverted to concert dress and were joined by the extra ingredients the symphony requires.

Elements of the ostentatious orchestration were great, with sumptuous string playing and sparkling wind solos, but other pieces of the picture seemed less vibrantly colourful than they should have been. That included, sadly, mezzo-soprano soloist Katie Coventry and the 19 female voices from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, performing, very distanced, above the players, and the digital organ being played by Michael Bawtree. The other keyboards, harps and even some brass details struggled in the mix, and the percussion contributions included an insipid wind machine that sounded more like the zip on an old anorak.

It made for a somewhat disappointing end to a concert that had begun with much promise.

Keith Bruce