Estonian National Symphony Orchestra impresses at the Perth Festival

29. mai 2023.

David Smythe, Bachtrack

The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra reached the most northerly stop on its UK tour, appearing at what will be an undoubted highlight of the 51st Perth Festival of the Arts. Perth Concert Hall is on the Scottish orchestra circuit and enjoys a healthy classical programme, but a visiting international orchestra is an event to be relished.

Linking both countries, the huge complement of string players began with the Cantus in memorium Benjamin Britten by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, written for strings and a single bell. Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Olari Elts took a slow, steady beat moving from violins across to the lower strings as the overlapping descending scales deepened in this mystical piece. Pärt was attracted by the purity of Britten’s music and had wanted to meet him, his disappointment reflected in the austere scored silence between the opening muted single chimes of the bell. It’s a short arresting piece, infused with mysticism as the chimes strengthen, cellos and basses adding a spiritual gravity. As the composer intended, the final chime was not heard being struck, but only the reverberation dying away to a peaceful stillness.

Barry Douglas and the orchestra are performing three of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos on this tour, and the Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor with its memorable tunes and dazzling virtuosity was a popular choice for Perth. Douglas approached the opening with purpose, the army of strings setting a brisk pace. Douglas has a distinctive muscular style, full of character for the big moments, yet there was tenderness as notes shimmered and rippled in the quieter passages. It took time for the balance between soloist and the sizeable orchestra to settle, but clear direction from Elts saw lyrical phrasing as Douglas powered through to a big ending. The players brought a moody smokiness to the Adagio opening, Douglas softly exploring broken chords as flute and clarinet took up the theme at a pace that allowed no lingering and the momentum to develop. The final Allegro showed Douglas and Elts unite in approach, tiny rubatos handled deftly, the players responsive and bright at every turn, the piano expansive, percussive and confidently riding the wave to the impressive finale.

Dvořák’s restless Symphony no. 7 in D minor was a true showcase for the Estonians, who gave a terrific performance. Elts conjured a world of darkness and light with big clear flowing gestures, the strings a united force of energy, lovely flute solos and the principal oboe playing straight out, trumpet-like, for the duration. A wonderful palette of colour emerged in the more gentle slow movement, a dreamy clarinet solo, soft trombones and a stylish horn section being particular highlights. In an organic performance, Elts allowed the music to breathe through the elegant dance with dark undercurrents in the third to the driving rhythms of the last movement, the strings an exciting powerhouse, violins all eagerly leaning forwards ahead of the epic final chords in a winning performance.

Brought back for two encores, Elts showcased the strings in Sibelius’ dreamily intense and magical The Death of Mélisande, which grew out of silence and drifted off into the ether, and then leader Trinn Ruubel sparked up a lively Tubin dance from the south of Estonia, the infectious theme taken up by all.