Perth Festival / ENSO

Perth Concert Hall

Scotland has much enjoyed the fruits of exceptional Estonian musicianship in the past, with Neeme Järvi’s years as music director still legendary in the minds of RSNO followers, and Olari Elts’ less distant tenure as SCO principal guest conductor notable for his energised results.

So what was the problem on Saturday, where an Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, variously associated with the same maestri, played under Elts, its current music director, as if charisma and confidence had been drained from its soul? 

There was, it must be said, a wonderful opening expectation where the calming reverence of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten acted as an emotional decoy before the anticipated explosions of Rachmaninov and Dvorak. That seemed to be the intent, inspired by the Estonian “holy minimalist” composer’s doleful tribute to Britten, its transcendental simplicity beautifully captured by the orchestra’s strings and single tolling bell.

But what followed was a huge disappointment, a performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with Irish pianist Barry Douglas, that failed to ignite, struggled to excite and generally lacked inspirational and practical cohesion. While Douglas seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts, and a somewhat choppy vision of the music, Elts threw his efforts into motivating an orchestra that sadly sounded as if its batteries were flat. 

It didn’t even keep time with itself in places, the basses lagging ponderously and troublesomely within the strings, the rear of the orchestra – even the timps – sometimes a hair’s breadth behind the front. What this produced was a prevailing sense of anxiety, a lack of self-propelling intensity propounded by unevenness in Douglas’s own thoughts and projection. A strange and unfulfilling outcome for such a standard concert work.

Nor did Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 realise its requisite surging inevitability. A nervous start didn’t help, nor Elt’s difficulty in garnering the overarching emotional thrust of the opening movement. Sparks of optimism gradually seasoned the inner movements, and the dramatic attacca into the finale heralded a promising home straight. It was realised, though a little too late.

At least there were encores to brighten the picture. Elts gave us two, one filled with muted ecstasy, the other a much needed riot of rustic colour and verve. The former was the movement from Sibelius’ Pelléas et Mélisande suite depicting the heroine’s death, gorgeously opulent in colour and pulsating with emotion; the latter, a boisterous Estonian dance by Eduard Tubin, delivered with hip-swinging brilliance and bravado, everything the main programme lacked.

The orchestra moved on to Edinburgh on Sunday with a slightly different programme, before continuing its current UK tour.

Ken Walton