RSNO in Germany (2)

Rudolf Oetker Halle, Bielefeld

To the loudly-expressed delight of the German audience, conductor Thomas Søndergård  announced the surprise of a world premiere at the conclusion of the third concert in the RSNO’s European tour.

For decades, this orchestra – alongside other Scottish ensembles – has dusted off John Fahey’s arrangement of Eightsome Reels as a traditional-music flavoured encore. When they played the piece in the United States, I described it as “bulletproof”, and it will remain so. Now, however, the RSNO has a new weapon in its armoury, courtesy of principal horn Christopher Gough.

In what might be compared to the sort of upgrade Formula 1 teams introduce midway through a Grand Prix season to give them a competitive edge, Gough has re-tooled the Eightsomes, using some of the screen-scoring skills he learned on a sabbatical on the Valencia campus of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Gough’s re-boot, with its daring changes of pace and time signature, may be trickier to clap along to, but it is a more thorough demonstration of the capabilities of a full symphony orchestra, and this arrangement looks certain to become a familiar bonus at the end of RSNO tour programmes.

It also sat particularly well at the end of this one, which was a unique sequence of music on this tour. It had begun with a more established evocation of Scotland in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and the swelling melody of the sea at Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. Requiring smaller forces than the rest of the programme, it was distinguished by the punchy wind playing Søndergård demanded, and precision trumpets.

From then on, it was an all-Rachmaninov concert, a bold stroke of programming that only seemed a little too rich because the first movement of the composer’s Second Symphony would arguably benefit from a little editing.

Before that, French soloist Lise de la Salle played the Piano Concerto No 2, with which she had wowed the orchestra’s home audience last month. In her hands it is a work designed to demonstrate the literal meaning of the name of her instrument – the pianoforte as a machine that works for delicacy as well as raw power. 

The famous opening bars have been played faster than she chooses to begin the work, but few players approach the dynamics of the score so deliberately. Every note counted and her lead was reflected in the contributions of soloists within the orchestra, notably again in the winds. Like Midori earlier in the week, it was to Bach that the soloist turned for her encore, describing his music as a “prayer for peace” to match the Ukrainian ribbon she wore.

The second movement Allegro of the symphony – with the work’s best tune – swiftly rescued it from the slightly unfocused journey that the opening section becomes, and with leader Maya Iwabuchi contributing a lyrical solo, the slow third movement was followed by a thoughtful pause before Sondergard launched the party of the Finale.

It is not just onstage that this tour has had to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. Covid has  meant a last-minute shuffling of responsibilities in the admin team as well, while post-Brexit regulations mean that the RSNO’s instrument trailer is hooked up to an Ireland-registered tractor unit with sub-contracted drivers. Somehow, the arrival of a brand-new encore work to energise the players and delight audiences seemed both appropriate and positively therapeutic.

Keith Bruce