When witnessing Scotland’s two symphony orchestras on successive nights, where both are fielding their Danish principal conductors and where there are elements of commonality in the repertoire, it’s tempting, and instructive, to make comparisons.
RSNO & Christina and Michelle Naughton, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****
BBC SSO & Joaquín Achúcarro, City Halls, Glasgow ***
The stark truth is this: the RSNO and Thomas Søndergård are a class act, their chemistry arrestingly instinctive and mutually conducive; the SSO and Thomas Dausgaard, even after two years together, continue to be hit-or-miss, the chemistry volatile and unstable.
That’s not an assessment made glibly, but one observed over time as both these conductors get to grips with their charges. While Søndergård’s impact on the RSNO in his first season as music director has been one of instant transformation (he was previously RSNO principal guest, of course), Dausgaard’s relationship with the SSO, while his creative programming is superb, is still frustratingly disconnected. What’s the problem?
It only took Søndergård’s upbeat on Friday to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra for the edge of the seat to beckon. What followed was a spring-cleaned version of Britten’s functional creation, the chattering textures effervescing like the perfect G&T, the sheer virtuosity – it is an A-Z orchestral showcase after all – effortless and limitless. Next, a new work by Denmark-based Michael Cryne – Open the Eastern Windows – was as sparklingly delivered, if slightly dry of soul and defeated by its perfunctory ending.
Then the glitz, and the first of two ear- and eye-catching appearances by sibling piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton. The American twins whipped up the biting maelstrom of wit, sardonic charm and wild eccentricity that is Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in electrifying synchronicity with Søndergård’s supercharged RSNO.
The sisters returned triumphantly for a highly personalised, high-voltage account of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, but not before the RSNO and its impressively homogenous Junior Chorus unveiled Gary Carpenter’s specially commissioned Ghost Songs, the simply conceived modality of its vocal writing neatly counterpointed by the unnerving underlay of the orchestration.
Over in Glasgow, the SSO’s Thursday programme also featured French repertoire – always a good test of an orchestra’s state of health – but fell short in consistency.
The most convincing performances arrived in the second half, where the sweet-scented nuances of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, heightened by the exquisitely nuanced flute playing of Charlotte Ashton, were followed by the same composer’s La Mer and the closest we got to genuine synergy, Dausgaard finally managing to establish common ground with his orchestra, which responded with greater glowing purpose than at the start of the evening.
Then we had heard Debussy’s three colourful Nocturnes, complete with the Royal Conservatoire Voices. Nuages lacked density and fluidity, Fêtes took too long to come to the boil and the necessary mystical ebb and flow deserted Sirénes. The 86-year-old pianist Joaquín Achúcarro made a valiant show of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, marred only by hesitant moments – indeed one where Dausgaard appeared to be conducting fresh air. - Ken Walton