Rather surprisingly, the oldest piece in the SSO’s concert was Stravinsky’s Firebird, and that was a superb conclusion to their Voices of Spring programme.
It was a virtuoso concert for the orchestra, a big play in every sense of the term. Bernstein’s Candide  as the opener had all the clarity and zing we’ve come to expect from this orchestra and all the fresher thanks to the acoustics of the Pamoja Hall. Precision playing in all departments whetted our appetites appropriately for the excitements to come.
Many of the audience will have pictured the C19th sailing vessels of the Onedin Line on hearing Khachaturian’s Spartacus [also 1956] – nothing to do with the sea originally, but a great chance for us to luxuriate in the glowing string sound we’re getting from the SSO at the moment.
We were then into the meat of the first half of the programme with a comparative rarity in live performance; Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano concerto . Alan Brown is an exciting performer to hear, with an almost dead-pan stage delivery and a really thoughtful musicianship behind it – it hardly needs to be said he has a phenomenal technique taking on this piece - and he displayed it thrillingly on Sunday. I’d done some preparatory listening not really knowing the piece and had found recordings somewhat less than persuasive – the live performance was revelatory. My big problem with Classic FM and lots of recordings is the way engineers mess around with the dynamics and balance of soloist and orchestra. There a bits of this piece where the piano is accompanying and shouldn’t be in the foreground, Darrell, Alan Brown and the SSO let Rachmaninoff do his work and it really paid off – this was brave programming and when Brown engaged overdrive in the final pages he gave the orchestra a tough time, but the effect in the hall was electric.
Copland’s Appalachian Spring  is a piece that always has the capacity to surprise with its rhythmic complexities and the pellucid textures that immediately conjure rural America. The orchestra were clearly able to regroup and totally change sound world for this piece of chamber music for orchestra. They really are on a high at present, there are no weak links evident and the section leaders are so good at intelligent ensemble thinking and playing.
Stravinsky’s Firebird [1910 originally] is such a colourful score it always delights even those with a natural antipathy to Stravinsky – surprised comments of ‘I liked that’ in the foyer on the way out bearing this out. Darrell Davison seemed more willing to let the pace relax in the quieter moments than last time I heard them do Firebird, which effectively put the quicksilver moments nicely into sharper relief. This concert another orchestral tour de force with gorgeous solos and shattering tuttis, charming detail and assured technique; above all a real group commitment to the music and their audience.