RSNO / Webster / Iwabuchi

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The relative self-confinement of orchestras during the past year has thrown up practical but unexpected opportunities. In this latest RSNO digital series concert the current benefits of primarily engaging British guest artists and/or utilising in-house talent once again makes its mark.

In charge of a programme that culminates in Brahms’ meaty Fourth Symphony is the young Angus Webster, barely into his twenties and making his RSNO debut with major international prizes and conducting engagements already under his belt. Guest soloist is none other than the RSNO’s own leader, Maya Iwabuchi, stepping out front – after 10 years in the job – to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.

Before the might of Brahms and Barber, however, an air of stillness and mystery is established by the two short works that make up Craig Armstrong’s Stac Lee. They were written as part of a Decca project five years ago, resulting in the album The Lost Songs of St Kilda, for which the label asked some of Scotland’s most prominent composers to write new works based on songs from the long-evacuated archipelago that had come to light in 2006 when the resident of an Edinburgh care home started playing then on the piano.

Armstrong’s contributions bear the mark of the successful film composer. He portrays St Kilda’s massive Stac Lee sea stack in two lights, at dawn and at dusk. In both cases the sensitivity to texture and mood is masterful, Impressionism reborn. Webster allows them to unfold with a delicate combination of timelessness and character, the latter faintly feverish with meteorological allusions to the steely indeterminacy of the island weather. 

It acts as a perfect scene-setter for the Barber concerto, a great favourite of 20th century violin repertoire largely for the lyrical breeziness and clean virtuosity that feeds through its fundamentally Romantic framework. And what a showpiece for Iwabuchi, whose dominating presence in this performance colours every moment with focussed animation and that essential fusion of lightning panache and impassioned reflection.

Webster’s unfussy support seems to recognise Iwabuchi’s towering persona – she adopts at times her normal “leader” role with gestures that say “follow me” – so it isn’t until the Brahms that we get to see what he’s really made of. The outcome there is one of generous competence engineered by a pair of steady young hands. 

His approach to this symphony, its shades of melancholy tempered by the robustness of its architecture, is largely to let it happen, which it does with Webster setting safe tempi, allowing the music, its phrases, paragraphs and chapters, to breathe at every level. There are issues with balance. In the opening tutti, for instance, the wind and brass butt through the texture with occasionally boorish inconsistency, but otherwise Webster’s gestural simplicity reaps intelligent, musical rewards. His development will be intriguing to follow.
Ken Walton

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