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.