This concert from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Peter Oundjian seemed to be particularly affected by the layout and acoustic of the Albert Hall. Sometimes the venue aided the sound while on other occasions it worked against it, although the effect for each listener would also have been influenced by where they sat within the vast interior.
From the stalls, the hall seemed to work to the orchestra’s advantage during the performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major in its 1885 version (and Haas edition). This was partly because the piece’s vision-like qualities may actually work best in a venue that does not lend itself to hearing a pin drop, but also because the large cylindrical space enabled the sound to reverberate around it during the most climactic passages. In addition, the tiered stage placed the wind slightly above the strings, and the brass generally above the wind, which helped the sounds of each section to come across, thus maintaining a good overall balance across the orchestra.
For a vision of the unconscious to be produced, however, the playing itself needs to be precise, and in this performance every line was rendered with exemplary clarity. The symphony’s Wagnerian elements, such as the allusion to the single chord crescendo in Das Rheingold at the end of the Allegro moderato, were readily conveyed, while on several occasions brass lines came across with spellbinding effectiveness. If, however, the performance was characterised more by tenderness and precision than energy and charge, it did have its share of thrilling moments, although on the negative side the focus occasionally slipped.
The acoustic may conversely have worked against the orchestra in the performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K595 (1788-91) before the interval. Soloist Igor Levit’s playing revealed immense delicacy and intricacy, although it never lacked in clarity as he shaped the phrases to perfection. However, in some of his quieter moments the strings tended to swamp him because the piano’s sound went directly forwards while theirs tended to expand outwards, thus impacting on anyone sitting towards the sides. The small group of wind and brass also suffered on this occasion, but in the less overwhelming passages the piano came across exquisitely, while one duet between piano and flute was particularly affecting.
Levit’s encore was Shostakovich’s Waltz-Scherzo from his Dances of the Dolls Suite, which seemed to display his playing at its very best because the piece demands such a detailed and intimate approach. This was the pianist’s Proms debut (excepting a Cadogan Hall contribution in 2012), and we can certainly hope for many more appearances from him in the years to come.
The evening opened with a performance of Messiaen’s Hymne, reconstructed from memory by the composer in 1947 after the 1932 original was lost during the Second World War. Although it was dogged by some of the balance problems that affected the Mozart, which were again attributable to the acoustic far more than the orchestra, overall it was effective. The strings employed a light, delicate approach that also brought an intriguing sense of depth to the sound, and here, as elsewhere in the concert, there was some very fine playing.