Classical review: RSNO: Saint-Saens, Glasgow

Saturday’s RSNO concert was a watershed moment for Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. After 25 years, there is finally a permanent organ in place. It’s not a pipe organ, but a less expensive digital one, which implies compromise.

Conductor Jun Markl ignited both organ works
Conductor Jun Markl ignited both organ works

That preoccupied my thoughts during the two main works: Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, and Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, both featuring the charismatic French organist Thierry Escaich. For there are some things that work on the new instrument, but quite a few that don’t.

In Poulenc’s softer sections, and in the sumptuous underpinning of the Saint-Saëns slow movement, for instance, Escaich found soft or solo effects that integrated well with the orchestra. And there’s no doubt that the response is biting and immediate, as in the symphony’s ecstatic organ chords. There is, though, a lifeless ‘synthesised” quality in the louder registrations. The earth doesn’t move.

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But what of the more basic issue? From my seat, the organ sound came mostly from the right side upper balcony speaker, completely disconnected from the orchestra. No wonder the balance was frequently wrong, the organ too overbearing at times. It should come, as in the Usher Hall, from behind and over the orchestra. The siting of the speakers is completely miscalculated. It requires immediate attention.

Due focus on the organ is not to undervalue the hugely impressive conducting of Jun Märkl, who ignited, in both organ works and in Liszt’s Les Préludes, particularly in the RSNO strings, a blistering definition that has been periodically lacking this season.