Review: Estonian National Symphony Orchestra with pianist Barry Douglas


A hasty Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 dominated the first half with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra demonstrating their full capabilities in the all-too-short second half featuring music by Sibelius and Thea Musgrave.

Cadogan Hall’s Zurich International Orchestra Series 22/23 came to a close last night with a programme of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto paired with Sibelius Symphony No.5.

Conducted by Olari Elts, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra were an exciting bunch to watch – a range of string colours, deliciously dry sandpaper-y textures when the score demanded, and (aside from a weird moment in the first movement of Sibelius 5 when things felt a little bit awry) some ravishing lines from the oboes and clarinets.

Sibelius 5 needs to be heard in an epic space. I suspect this has something to do with the epic vista Sibelius’ sweeping melodic lines create. In this respect, ENSO had a big challenge both getting the measure of Cadogan Hall acoustically and honouring the intensity in the score. Sometimes the loud bits felt as near to the limits of the performance space as the building could take. Whilst the final chords prophetic chords didn’t resonate as familiarity would lead us to expect, the flip side was being able to hear the complexities of Sibelius’ scoring, both in the construction of chords and in the intricacies of string passages. In this way, the acoustic helped bring a fresh perspective on a much-loved work, helped in no small part by the considerable discipline of the players.

That discipline was in evidence amongst the orchestra during the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto with Barry Douglas, though not necessarily with the entire ensemble. Conductor Olari Elts baton technique is clear and demonstrative, the stage isn’t that deep and the reverb in the acoustic fairly swift. Yet, there were times when melodic lines in the piano weren’t tracked as precisely by woodwind solos. Sometimes proceedings felt a little hurried. There were moments of precision in this audacious performance, but I left for the interval feeling as though I’d missed some colour.

The Zurich International Orchestra Series 23/24 begins on Thursday 14 September 2023 with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3 performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andras Keller.