Classical review: RSNO/ Peter Oundjian, Usher Hall

If we ever needed reminding what fine musicians the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus are, their inventive nautical-themed concert was just the event to do it.

Conductor Peter Oundjian. Picture: Contributed

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian | Usher Hall | Rating ****

The aquatic pairing of Debussy’s sumptuous La mer and Vaughan Williams’s visionary Sea Symphony made for unexpectedly revealing listening – they’re highly contrasting works, but the concert threw up surprising similarities in their harmonies and turns of phrase, almost as if echoes bouncing between them.

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And conductor Peter Oundjian delivered intense, sharply focused performances of both. His La mer was simply exquisite – coloured and balanced with the utmost care, but never less than playful and spontaneous, with beautifully nimble, dancing cellos in the first movement and glimpses of terrifying power in the last movement’s stormy evocations. Oundjian had a strong grip on the piece’s unusual but crucial architecture, etching sometimes unexpected detail but always in the service of his broader vision of the piece. It was a perceptive, highly persuasive performance.

And the RSNO Chorus’s opening cry of ‘Behold, the sea!’, awe-struck and eager, in Vaughan Williams’ huge choral symphony told us all we needed to know about the full-blooded account that was to come.

The Chorus made a glorious sound, rich, confident and crisply enunciated (chorus master Gregory Batsleer has clearly been driving them hard), even if they were sometimes less assured when broken down into individual sections. Soloists Benedict Nelson and Katherine Broderick were on fine, vivid form, and there was a commanding sweep to Oundjian’s expansive account. By the Symphony’s mystical final moments, it felt like we’d really been on a transcendental journey.