RSNO: Meister / Gough

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Lurking beneath the high-level collective performance prowess of most orchestras is a surprising plethora of subsidiary individual accomplishments. Among RSNO players of recent years, for instance, there has been a novelist, a Magic Circle magician and two church organ builders. Not surprisingly, there have also been composers, one early example (1900-1904) being a certain second trombonist, Gustav Holst.

The latest compositional voice to emerge from the RSNO ranks is its current principal horn, Christopher Gough. He spent most of last year studying abroad on sabbatical for a masters degree in scoring for film, television and video games at the Berklee College of Music Valencia, winning an Outstanding Scholar Award for his troubles, despite the interruptions caused by the pandemic.

It’s clear, from the world premiere of his Three Belarusian Folk Songs – performed in the RSNO’s most recent digital concert and featuring its dedicatee, principal cellist Aleksei Kiseliov, as soloist – that Gough has an instinctive penchant for this particular idiom. Cast in three movements, with a language drawing freely on recognisable influences, cleverly assimilated and recast to serve his own expressive purposes (think John Williams), here is a craftsman who naturally understands the orchestral palate and its ability to express profound thoughts in vital, communicative terms.

On the surface are the three folk tunes successively defining each movement and forming the basis of the solo cello’s rhapsodic discourse, its mood supported and expanded upon by the surrounding strings and percussion. Kiseliov – who performed extensively as a young Russian soloist in Belarus – offers what seems a wholly natural affinity for their beguiling traditional intonations, sometimes weepingly plaintive, at other times dazzlingly rustic.

Gough pulls on a menagerie of musical references, from febrile Bartok and sumptuously dense Vaughan Williams to chiming percussive frissons reminiscent of, say, Lutoslawski or Orff, all craftily woven and ultimately serving their purpose in illuminating the real message of the work, a reflective, soulful response to the oppressive political situation in Belarus. 

Kiseliov’s performance was breathtakingly moving. Gough’s other RSNO colleagues, working under conductor Cornelius Meister (replacing the absent Thomas Sondergard), also did him proud. It will be interesting to see where he goes now with his compositional aspirations.

Where this work signalled the launch of the RSNO’s occasional Scotch Snap series (music by Scots composers), this programme, in opening with Krzysztof Penderecki’s evocative Adagio for Strings, also marked the first in this season’s Polska Scotland series, celebrating 500 years of friendship between the two countries.

Re-crafted from his Third Symphony as a stand alone concert work in 2013, the Adagio is representative of the composer’s later style, a retrenchment away from the harsh modernism of his younger years to a more retrospective tonal language. Under Meister’s urging lead, the RSNO strings evoked its eerie aching serenity, a gauntness that harks back to Shostakovich.

Coming online on a day that Edinburgh was reeling from its thundersnow onslaught, Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, the Pastoral, which closed this programme, might have seemed like small change in meteorological terms. Meister’s view was very different, though, his answer being to apply pressurised containment as a means of heightening its protean narrative. 

The overall vision was sweeping and cohesive, within which lay a world of infinite contrast. The RSNO strings were expansive and as smooth as silk in the “Scene by the brook”; the “Thunderstorm” raged with unpredictable seismic ferocity; the “Shepherd’s Hymn” evoked reassuringly those final moments of peace and contentment.

Ken Walton

Image: RSNO Principal Horn Christopher Gough