BBC SSO / Hermus
City Halls, Glasgow
An editor I worked for argued that typographical “entry points” – including star ratings on reviews – were an encouragement to readers, while I worried they could as easily dissuade them from engaging with the writing. A similar argument might be had over the work of Dutch percussionist, composer and arranger Henk de Vlieger, who has concentrated the music of the operas of Richard Wagner into programmable works for orchestra.
The RSNO’s performance and recording of The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure with veteran chief conductor Neeme Jarvi was my introduction to his scores, and this week the BBC Scottish, under de Vlieger’s countryman Anthony Hermus, performed another. Why The Ring is an “adventure” and Meistersinger “An Orchestral Tribute” is of minor semantic interest – the formula is the same and it would be churlish to suggest that either work does anything but entice listeners into the opera-house.
In the second half of a programme that had begun with the equally-colourful violin concerto of Erich Korngold, it was also both a complement and a contrast. While the former is, almost by definition, “cinematic”, Wagner’s music is theatrical. The reason the epic Ring cycle can be staged in so many radically different ways is that the drama is always there in the music.
And this was a very dramatic performance of the Meistersinger music. Guest-led by the RSNO’s Maya Iwabuchi, there was immense power in the orchestra’s strings and dependable articulacy from the winds. The brass took up position in the choir stalls and there were six horns in full Wagner mode – sections reinforced by offstage players at the back of the auditorium later on. When the drums and timpani joined in, the full surround-sound experience was formidable.
Yet there was also a lightness of touch about the conductor’s approach that allowed the narrative to emerge, even if the full story of the opera would remain opaque to those unfamiliar with it. Yes, it had its grandiose moments, even in that opening Prelude, but it never seemed unnecessarily pompous.
Although it is less true of the current generation of composers for the big screen, in the first half of the 20th century what was meant by “cinematic” was as much the sound that composers who had found refuge in Hollywood after fleeing Eastern Europe had brought with them. That hypothesis is perfectly illustrated by Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, which is full of music that also appeared in his film scores but may well have been repurposed there from earlier composition for the concert platform.
Making his debut with the SSO, the very youthful-looking Benjamin Beilman took a very measured, soulful approach to the opening bars that left him plenty of room to manoeuvre. Equally measured in his direction, Hermus gave the soloist all the space he needed in the slow movement, allowing the skewed arpeggios at the end to be a moving echo of the jagged modernist cadenza in the opening one.
It is from the start of the Allegro Finale that we are most clearly in the world of vibrant screen action, albeit a genre-hopping one that manages to suggest the Wild West, action thrillers and historical romance in successive bars. Beilman brought a huge tone to the performance, but also elegant precision – which he recapped, with that soulfulness too, in an encore of Bach.
This concert is available on BBC Sounds