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Herrmann, Salonen: Paul Rissmann (presenter), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 18.3.2011 (SRT)

Bernard Herrmann: Suite from Vertigo

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Insomnia

Normally the RSNO's Naked Classics series deals with a work that most regular concert-goers will already know, so it's refreshing to have a contemporary work tackled. It made me feel that, for once, I was in the target audience group and I understood better how a newcomer to an evening like this would feel. Paul Rissmann's style makes any piece of music more accessible and the combination of his graphics, dialogue and illustrated excerpts from the score make me sorry that more orchestras don't do this kind of thing.

Both this evening's works take the listener on a nightmarish journey into some very unpleasant depths of the human psyche. Vertigo, arranged by its composer from the film score, deals with insecurity and instability, while Insomnia captures the psychological torment and frustration of a sleepless night. Both pieces work through their relentlessness and repetition, such as the repeated oscillations at the beginning of Vertigo and the repeated jagged semi-quavers that form the backbone of much of both works. Vertigo works more effectively through contrast, however, most notably when the nightmare scene gives way to the gently lyrical Scene d'amour.

, on the other hand, seemed for the most part to operate on only one tension and dynamic level. It was undeniably effective in evoking trauma and interior neurosis: Salonen's use of syncopation, subtle dissonance and edgy melody suggest jangling nerves and interior panic. It all got a bit unremitting at times, however, making me wonder whether most of the work is marked fortissimo or whether this was just the conductor's rather blunt take on it. The opening chorale and the gurgling clarinets in the dream sequence came as welcome contrast, but taken as a whole the work seemed rather implacable to my ears. It was never less than excellently played, however: the large orchestra, including an enormous percussion section, got fully inside Salonen's nightmare vision and every section had a chance to shine both collectively and, in the first half, individually. Denève steered a steady course, though I couldn't tell how much of the mood control was his and how much the composer's. It was definitely a visceral, exciting evening though, for a range of reasons, I wasn't entirely sorry when it was over.

The RSNO have just announced their new season. Naked Classics will return in May with Haydn and next Season with Sibelius, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn.

Simon Thompson


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