RSNO / Reif

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The recent trend among orchestras to rediscover music by composers of African-American heritage, especially females, has unearthed some forgotten gems: not always, but assuredly so in the case of Julia Perry. Born in Kentucky in the 1920s, she died at the age of 55 in 1979, but in her curtailed lifetime studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard School and later with the go-to European teachers of the time, Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola. The RSNO opened last weekend’s programme with one of her 1950s’ works, A Short Piece for Orchestra.

It is, as it says on the tin, short, but within its seven-minute span it reveals a red-hot creative focus and intent, which this performance under German-born conductor Christian Reif vividly illustrated. Structured in five concise and continuous sections, it wasted no time in making its point, Perry’s stylistic language progressive and bold. Reif exerted incisive control on its initial explosiveness, a cascading torrent of aphoristic soundbites ripe for the picking, variously calming the mood (a delicious flute-led second section) or revelling in ecstatic adrenalin rushes along its journey.

As such, it functioned as the perfect springboard for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, a sumptuous assimilation of the composer’s Hollywood epic film score style and influences derived from his native Vienna upbringing, echoes of Mahler and Strauss. If that demands a soloist of big personality, then American-born violinist Philippe Quint, making his RSNO debut, was a solid choice.

Visually, he was a commanding presence centre stage, with a physicality responsive to the music’s flamboyant cut and thrust. His tone was assertive and passionate, his agile facility at the topmost end of the fingerboard (there’s a lot of that!) bright and thrilling, and where Korngold luxuriates in golden lyricism, Quint’s realisation was gloriously rapt. Occasionally such all-consuming fervour distorted the perfection of the intonation, but it was a performance – along with his solo encore version of Charlie Chaplin’s famous melody Smile – that was both engaging and enthralling.

There wasn’t quite the same sustained intensity in Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, which certainly had its triumphant moments, but which, under Reif’s busy direction, lacked sustained compulsion and the sharpest of responses from the orchestra. The opening two movements seemed weighted, sluggish even, made up for by a welcome zest in the Scherzo and ultimate flourish in the Finale. 

Ken Walton