RSNO / Heyward

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

One of the most exciting aspects of any orchestral concert can be the dynamic struck up between the conductor and the concerto soloist. It can be synergic or combative, thrustful or accommodating; it can result in an explosive sum that is greater than the parts, or a resigned cancellation of opposites that merely produces benign compromise. 

The outcome arising from the partnership of Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin and American conductor Jonathon Heyward in Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto with the RSNO – both late replacements for the advertised Joyce Yang and Edo de Waart – was up there in the starry high ground, Kozhukhin’s feisty unpredictability bouncing off the efficient and alert Heyward in a way that multiplied the enjoyment. 

Mostly, it was a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride, Kozhukhin’s dry, side-stepping whimsy close to mischief-making, which the cooler-headed Heyward did well to translate into as tidy an orchestral response as was possible. There were certainly hairy moments where absolute coordination was challenged, but that in itself created an explosive tension that ensured this Grieg was anything but run-of-the-mill.

It was clear, even in the familiar opening piano cascade, that it was to be Kozhukhin’s way or the highway. Reaching deep into the keys, every degree of touch had meaning and intent. The outer movements sizzled with bold and athletic musicality, the central slow movement found him toying with its lyrical quietude. There was possibly more in colour terms that Heyward could have coaxed from the RSNO, but this was ultimately a powerful showcase to which both artists contributed vital thoughts and crackling energy.

Before that, the 29-year-old conductor – newly appointed as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – had proved his quiet adeptness in James MacMillan’s 2017 orchestral reworking of an earlier 2009 choral setting of the Miserere, now called Larghetto for Orchestra. Given its similarity in character to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings – that same heavenly lyricism, its unhurried richness and warmth – you wonder to what extent the title is a deliberate allusion.

But it is MacMillan through and through, luxuriously devotional, haunted initially by subliminal references to his own famous Tryst melody (think back to Karen Cargill’s sung performance of that two weeks ago with the RSNO, forming part of the Three Scottish Songs) which finally appears, fully harmonised, in the heart-stopping closing bars. Heyward captured the reflective stillness of the work, but also its moments of heightened sentiment.

He ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, choosing to do so without controversy or novelty, simply expressing it in calm, rounded terms. If that was to play down the maximum theatricality of the opening movement and paint the Scherzo in honest unsensational light, there was no lack of individuality in the organic shaping of the Allegretto and exuberant flourishes of the finale.

It’s worth mentioning the encouraging turn-out on Saturday for an RSNO Glasgow series that has struggled with audience numbers so far this season. A very good sign.

Ken Walton