WHAT a treat, conductor Peter Oundjian remarked, to be able to perform Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in an adult concert. With its blow-by-blow run-through of orchestral instruments and sections, it’s a piece usually reserved for children’s educational events.
But hearing it played straight in an adult performance served to spotlight Britten’s masterly orchestral writing – and gave the RSNO a chance to show off its individual players’ considerable talents. Trombones and tuba glowed with magnificent richness; timpani were played with rare subtlety; flutes glistened; oboes were indulgent and sultry. Even the xylophone clattered with touching poetry.
Oundjian’s account was big and bold right from the start, full of vivid character, but in the grand sweep of his vision some moments of drama and contrast were swept aside – also a problem in his turbulent Dvorák seventh symphony that closed the concert. Nonetheless, Oundjian’s symphony was a seething beast, full of extraordinarily gutsy playing, and his supposedly upbeat conclusion felt hard-won and pleasingly unconvincing.
Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, however, stole the show with her intensely lyrical account of the Shostakovich first cello concerto. Cellists have a lot to live up to if they try to emulate the sheer power of Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the piece, but Gabetta took a different tack entirely: at times it felt fragile, at others screamingly impassioned, but there was no mistaking her fierce, unwavering commitment and the raw honesty of her playing. With the RSNO on incisive form, it was an unforgettable performance.