RSNO Chamber: Polish Reflections

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Bracketing its season with Nicola Benedetti playing Szymanowski Violin Concertos and with Chris Gough’s piece to mark the anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz in the middle, the RSNO has kept faith with the Polksa Scotland strand it had planned for its season, regardless of the pandemic.

This concert shows why that initiative was so necessary, as participants Lena Zeliszewska and Tom Dunn explain. The Polish violinist may have helped plan this programme, but much of the music in it was as new to her as the rest of the players. In the case of the Szymanowski Sonata she performs with Graeme McNaught, that seems particularly surprising. Although the concertos were a rite of passage for herself and fellow students in Poznan, the much earlier Sonata, written shortly after the composer who would become director of Warsaw’s conservatoire was a student there, was not.

That seems especially strange when the central slow movement, marked “tranquillo et dolce”, is such an expressive exercise for the violinist, while it is the pianist that has a great many notes to play. Zeliszewska and McNaught capture the dramatic intensity of the work from the start with the zeal of musicians on a journey of discovery, while the finale hints at the violin fireworks to come in the concertos.

McNaught also partners orchestra principal Adrian Wilson in Lutoslawski’s Epitaph, a work the oboist knows intimately, having played it as a younger chap in the BBC Young Musician contest. From the later years of the Polish composer’s long career, Wilson is fascinating on its history, and again the music for the piano is often just as interesting as the soloist’s line.

The recital is bracketed by quartets, beginning with another work from a young man, the precocious Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, teaming Wilson with Zeliszewska, Dunn, and cellist Arthur Boutillier. This too is an expressive oboe feature, but the strings-only section really stands out in this performance, with the sense that they are really pushing the soloist on – not that Wilson needs any shoving.

But it is the string quartet that ends the programme, the fourth of Grazyna Bacewicz, that is the work to relish discovering here. There is surely a more complex story to its neglect than simple sexism, Bacewicz being something of a trailblazer for women composers in Poland. Rather there is the skill with which she navigated the political situation under Stalin. While being the first female office-bearer in the state-recognised Polish Composers’ Union may have helped her adventurous music to be played at home, it may not have benefitted perceptions in the West.

The other difficulty, although actually this quartet’s glorious strength, is that it is very difficult to classify stylistically. Joined by Robin Wilson on violin, these string players give a terrific account of it, with an enveloping central Andante and boisterous, fun final Allegro giocoso.

Keith Bruce