RSNO’s new al­bum: Now that’s what I call a cen­tury and a quar­ter


OVER the past week or two there’s been a seis­mic rum­bling be­neath the sur­face of the mu­sic scene. It doesn’t hap­pen of­ten, but sug­gests that change, or de­vel­op­ment, is afoot. Some of the el­e­ments are al­ready in place, with the re­tire­ment of Roy McEwan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Scot­tish Cham­ber Or­ches­tra, and the ap­point­ment of his suc­ces­sor, Gavin Reid, who will move from the BBC Scot­tish Sym­phony Or­ches­tra. Who will take over Reid’s post at the BBC SSO, one won­ders? This was ac­com­pa­nied last week by the tri­umphant Mahle­rian horn calls in praise of the SSO’s out­go­ing chief con­duc­tor Don­ald Run­ni­cles, and the be­gin­nings of cu­rios­ity into his suc­ces­sor, Dan­ish con­duc­tor Thomas Daus­gaard.

So I guess we should turn to the RSNO to look for a pe­riod of calm and sta­bil­ity, right? Don’t bet on it. Re­mem­ber that the RSNO is just at the mid-point of its cel­e­bra­tions of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s 125th an­niver­sary, with yet more to come. And be­fore jump­ing too many guns, their sea­son in Glas­gow only fin­ishes tonight with a ma­jor con­cert in the Royal Con­cert Hall, about which more in a mo­ment. But this week­end for the RSNO has its own wee ad­di­tional seis­mic flut­ter be­cause it co­in­cides ex­actly with the re­lease of a dou­ble CD go­ing on sale as a two-for-one pack­age on the Chan­dos record la­bel, and en­ti­tled, sim­ply, 125 Years of the Royal Scot­tish Na­tional Or­ches­tra. It’s a sam­pler, fea­tur­ing record­ings of the or­ches­tra made with some (not quite all) of the prin­ci­pal con­duc­tors from the most re­cent era.

There are, of course, yards of record­ings of the work of Sir Alexan­der Gibson, who frankly de­vel­oped the or­ches­tra into the ba­sic en­tity we know to­day, and put it on the map. You can hear his work, and the or­ches­tra’s sound world of that pe­riod, in mu­sic by MacCunn, Holst (a Plan­ets’ ex­tract), Si­belius of course (the fi­nale of the Fifth Sym­phony), Men­delssohn’s He­brides Over­ture and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. There is a smack of the tangy taste of Bry­den “Jack” Thom­son’s style in the blaz­ing fi­nale to Nielsen’s Fourth Sym­phony, the Inex­tin­guish­able, and Mart­inu’s First Sym­phony, which has still not made it into the main­stream reper­toire. There are swash­buck­ling dol­lops of Neeme Jarvi from that sec­ond golden pe­riod from the mid-eight­ies on­wards with ex­tracts from Wag­ner, Richard Strauss (from the Four Last Songs, which will be per­formed tonight along with Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­phony in the clos­ing con­cert of the RSNO sea­son). Jarvi is a dom­i­nant fig­ure on the discs, with mu­sic also by Enescu, Glazunov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Stephane Den­eve is in there with an ex­tract from De­bussy’s Noc­turnes, which gets the RSNO Cho­rus into the sur­vey, while cur­rent mu­sic di­rec­tor Peter Ound­jian is there with a short ex­tract from John Adams’ Har­monielehre. There’s no Lazarev or Weller (you’ll find Weller’s big Beethoven record­ings on the same la­bel, but with another or­ches­tra). There is, how­ever, rather oddly, a We­bern record­ing with Matthias Bamert, a former prin­ci­pal guest con­duc­tor with the or­ches­tra, who did some good work with the band, not least Mes­si­aen’s Tu­ran­galila Sym­phonie in the old City Hall, though he never took root here beyond the ten­ure of his post.

As I said, it’s a sam­pler, and I can al­ready hear the ar­gu­ments that will rage about reper­toire se­lec­tion and so on. They’ll run for years. Some RSNO fans will want it as a sou­venir of this era. Oth­ers will wish it was other things. More broadly, in this slightly tran­si­tional pe­riod in Scot­land, while there will be ex­cite­ment, and per­haps some un­cer­tainty, about the BBC SSO and SCO, at least un­til things set­tle and get es­tab­lished with new artis­tic and man­age­ment per­son­nel, keep your eye on that RSNO. They have this price­less new venue in the RSNO Cen­tre. They’ve barely scratched the sur­face of its po­ten­tial. But you can see al­ready in the ded­i­cated brochure that the vol­ume and va­ri­ety of events in the place is only go­ing to in­crease, broaden and di­ver­sify. And you can hear that tonight in the Royal Con­cert Hall when, along­side the epic, es­tab­lished works by Beethoven and Strauss, a new work by a young com­poser, Lil­lie Har­ris, a com­po­si­tion pro­duced di­rectly from the ethos and en­vi­ron­ment of the RSNO Cen­tre as a cre­ative work­place, will be launched.

And the fi­nal word re­lates to tonight’s pro­gramme, though obliquely. The RSNO has men­tioned that Richard Strauss him­self con­ducted this or­ches­tra in 1902. Now that’s a wee link to think about tonight dur­ing the per­for­mance of Strauss’ drop-dead gor­geous Four Last Songs, a rich, op­u­lent, vale­dic­tory mas­ter­piece writ­ten in 1948, the year be­fore the com­poser died.

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