RSNO / Schønwandt

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It’s 38 years since Michael Schønwandt last guest conducted what was then the Scottish National Orchestra. Since then he has held key opera and orchestral positions in his native Denmark, as well as in Germany and the Netherlands. He brings effortless experience to the podium, which was the visible hallmark of his return last week to the RSNO.

If that resulted in smooth-running, errorless performances of Richard Strauss, Ravel and Rimsky Korsakov, there was also a casualness about Schønwandt’s delivery, at times veering on matter-of-factness, that left areas of this music somewhat featureless. 

Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration fell most victim. Schønwandt’s presence was one of unflustered efficiency: a clear beat, minimal animation and self-assured, friendly composure. The outcome reflected the input, a performance true to the letter of the law but too often lacking in passion and thrill, as if the RSNO were simply responding with due deference, asked politely to get to the end without risk or upset. 

The opening, in particular, presented a flat landscape, mustering little of the sustained intensity required to stoke this anguished music. Thereafter, it was more plain sailing, but with a welcome boost at the end – notable for the return of a signature melody John Williams surely pinched for one of his Superman movie themes – where a hint of the sublime graced the closing bars.

Would Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein’s presence in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand add a much-needed spark? His was certainly a grittily probing account of this tough-talking idiosyncratic work, written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had tragically lost his right arm in the First World War, and Schønwandt certainly seemed to shift things up a gear, reflected in a more energised response from the RSNO.

Gerstein acknowledged the warmth of the audience reaction with a two-handed encore suited to this annual period of Remembrance, Debussy’s lullaby for a hero, Berceuse héroïque, written in 1914 as a sombre and moving homage to the King of Belgium and his army.

It would be hard not to react to the story book charm and exotic colours of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade with anything less than the exuberance that greeted this performance. There were still periodic ennuis that underplayed the iridescence of Rimsky’s glittering score, but by and large here was playing that more closely matched expectations. 

Central to everything was leader Maya Iwabuchi’s beguiling solo performance, flawlessly executed, sweetly projected, and laced with sufficient lustre and enchantment to nail the protagonist’s role. At its hottest moments, this was a Scheherazade that sizzled, the final movement especially brimming with emotional heat. Just a pity it took a while for this concert to really get going.

Ken Walton