RSNO / Qian

New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Wednesday’s RSNO afternoon programme was a strange concoction. By far its most exciting concern was the early musical travelogue of Richard Strauss, Aus Italien, styled by the German composer in 1887 as a symphonic fantasy, but in essence a precursor the the rich string of tone poems that were later to seal his distinctive reputation.

That was the meatiest part of a concert directed by the orchestra’s former assistant conductor Junping Qian, which had opened with the sure-footed pragmatism of Nicolai’s Overture to his one-hit operatic wonder The Merry Wives of Windsor, followed by the strangest of inclusions, music for strings by the award-winning Glasgow-based film composer Craig Armstrong.

Armstrong’s music, of course, stretches way beyond one hit, but most of it is geared towards the silver screen. There were two examples here: the shimmering Balcony Scene music written for Baz Lurmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo and Juliet; and the mundanely titled Slow Movement for String Orchestra, material from which also found its way into the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack.

The problem with both is that they don’t hold well on their own right. It’s not necessary to fill a piece with melodic interest and self-reliance when it’s just part of the complete cinematic experience. Present it in sole isolation, however, and it can seem lifeless.

Qian did what he could, but no silk purse emerged. Yes, he could have suppressed the Balcony music to a whisper, which might have captured more of the magic it elicits on screen, and the longer Slow Movement, again more atmospheric than characterful, needed much more in the way of nuance to be convincing. Their inclusion, as part of the RSNO’s regular Scotch Snap series, seemed more token than fulfilling.

Especially when they came in the wake of The Merry Wives overture, its super-abundance of themes vying for position, skilfully intermeshed, and performed with enriching persuasiveness, from the gorgeously resonant cello opening to the glitter and excitement of Nicolai’s opulent scoring.

But it was Strauss’ Aus Italien that finally established a powerful sense of substance. Each of its four “scenes” possessed sunny countenance, varied according to the subject matter addressed: the humid pastoral glow of Auf Der Champagna, the passionate charms depicting In Roms Ruinen, the glistening ecstasy of Am Strande von Sorrent, and the unchecked Neapolitan exuberance of the dizzy finale.

In all of this, Strauss could be heard experimenting with ideas destined to characterise his daring musical maturity. Qian recognised that in a performance itching to take flight, but adhering equally to the gravitational pull of influences the composer was clearly itching to pull free from. 

Ken Walton