Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro has become a familiar and popular figure on Scotland’s stages, and her relaxed and communicative style was an essential ingredient of the success of this well-attended concert. It is likely, however, that many in the audience were attracted by the accessible programme of music by Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven and the presence of piano soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, just a day after the RSNO had announced a season that includes the box office certainty of a gig featuring him with Nicola Benedetti and Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
He was playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 (actually Chopin’s first), of which he made a chart-topping recording with the RSNO and Elim Chan, and I’d wager that Carneiro shares Chan’s opinion that the view that the young Chopin was no orchestrator is exaggerated. In a performance that found Beethovian echoes in the opening of the first movement before Grosvenor had played a note, she was very aware that the work is all about the soloist, but made sure that the rest of the players had a share of the action. There may be long stretches, particularly in the Larghetto slow movement, when many of them are less productively employed, but the vivacity of the dance music in the finale was as much down to them as the piano.
Grosvenor’s playing was exemplary. The correct balance between rigour and passion seems to come naturally to him for this music, and it is not overstating the case to place him as the foremost interpreter of both Chopin concertos of our times.
On either side we heard composers who informed the Chopin’s style, with Mozart’s Symphony No 32 (really more of an overture, as Carneiro said) and Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral.
With four horns and nearly 30 string players, the Mozart was a big opening statement, shaped by the conductor to wake up the ears. The clarity of her beat and signals of emphasis and dynamics are delightfully readable from an audience point of view, so she is a great asset in selling the music to those with less experience of orchestral concerts, as was perhaps the case here.
Not that the Pastoral needs much help. As probably the most popular of Beethoven’s symphonies, it resists attempts to intellectualise it, and what was clear here was how much it shares with the contemporaneous Fifth in the composer’s endlessly inventive re-working of his basic material – the difference being that Sixth’s is easier to like, prettier and more like Mozart.
Carneiro found a revelatory approach to the Andante second movement “Scene by the brook” with a balance that favoured the undercurrent of the low strings, the violins rippling more quietly on top, and the round-toned bassoon of Cerys Ambrose-Evans a crucial ingredient later. The rural partying that followed was full of fun, ended by a muscular, but not overpowering, storm.
As the RSNO launches its first full season in two years, KEN WALTON sounds out the dynamic duo behind its conception
To sit down with RSNO Music Director Thomas Søndergård and Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is to witness first hand the sharp collective minds that are shaping an exciting future for the Orchestra as it emerges from the frustrations of Covid.
Central to their shared vision is ‘trust’. ‘It’s a two-way conversation,’ says Søndergård, who values any opportunity to sit down with his players, listen to their ideas and concerns, and impart his own in return. Mackie, for his part, is fully behind that approach. ‘Every single one of us in this great organisation holds a personal responsibility for shaping its success,’ he believes. ‘Meaningful dialogue is essential in making that happen.’
Such an approach was always in Søndergård’s sights. ‘One of the things I really wanted to do differently, when moving from being Principal Guest Conductor to becoming Music Director, was actually to meet the musicians eye to eye,’ he explains. He initiated these conversations, firstly with individual principal players, but always with a long-term intention of widening that ‘to everyone involved in “the project”.’
‘That’s what happens out there in society. We started doing this here before the pandemic, but when it hit we weren’t even allowed to be in the same room. So we couldn’t continue those talks, which I find so important in terms of actually developing a dialogue about what ensemble playing is, and not just about players coming through the door in the morning, getting through the music, then going back home. The joy of playing comes from the trust that we have together.’
The real test, of course, is how such behind-the-scenes personal development translates into what audiences ultimately witness in live RSNO performances. That’s not a challenge lost on either Søndergård, a former timpanist, or Mackie, himself a former top-ranking orchestral player.
In the forthcoming Season, which marks the midpoint in Søndergård’s second three-year contract as Music Director, the emphasis, he says, will be on moulding the sound of the Orchestra, and the principal vehicle for that will be the symphonies of Brahms, all four of which will feature as a core integral series spread over the latter half of the Season.
Why this obsession with sound? ‘When I talk to the players we inevitably get round to discussing the things that are really key to the ensemble, and central to that is the quality of the collective sound,’ he explains. ‘For me, Brahms is number one for that, and it so happens that when the pandemic hit, and I realised I was not going to be doing very much conducting, it was to Brahms that I instinctively turned for in-depth study and quiet contemplation.’
Søndergård took the Third and Fourth Symphonies to his seaside home near Copenhagen, where it became clear to him that this was a composer he simply had to revisit. ‘I’d left him aside for a while, but here I was suddenly falling passionately in love with this music. I’d forgotten how beautifully he writes.’
But is there anything new he can bring to a composer that Scottish audiences have plentiful experience of, in a country whose main orchestras have tackled the symphonies from numerous interpretational angles? Views have differed over the years on the appropriate size of orchestra, the quantitative relationship between wind and string numbers, the style of playing (some conductors even prescribing no string vibrato) and such basic defining issues as tempi.
‘This will be no revolution,’ he insists. But it will be a product of serious consideration and informed preparation. ‘I want to present a broader Brahms to our audiences, not necessarily in the way I first conducted these symphonies, which was to adopt a Schumann-like approach with more flow and not so heavy a German tradition. I don’t know if it’s the grey hair, but now I actually want to sink into the music and see if there’s a reason for that luxurious tradition, that expansiveness.’
If Søndergård’s motives for programming the Brahms are as much about personal choice as about being good for the health of the Orchestra, Mackie is focused on the bigger picture and its strategic justification. ‘I see Brahms as a once-in-a-decade reset for the Orchestra, particularly as a yardstick in recalibrating the rich ensemble sound. The same can be said of Bruckner and Schumann, which also put an orchestra under the microscope in that particular way.’
Mackie is also keen to emphasise the excitement and variety of a wider 2022:23 Season where the pre-pandemic scale of performance can be resumed. ‘It’s not just about the Brahms symphonies,’ he says. ‘We open with Thomas conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the world premiere of David Fennessy’s The Riot Act, which didn’t happen last year due to Covid.’
He’s also capitalising on the potential celebrity options a piece like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto presents. ‘We have an all-star team of soloists for that,’ Mackie reveals, rhyming off the dream team of violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, two of whom will perform, in the same May programme, a separate piece with the RSNO Youth Chorus.
Indeed, thinking out of the box is something Mackie believes is essential in ensuring the RSNO maintains its freshness, vitality and edge. And he’s prepared to go beyond traditional orchestral programming patterns and proprietorial grounds to do so.
It involves capitalising on the investment made last year in adapting the main rehearsal auditorium as a state-of-the-art recording facility for movie soundtracks, and reaching out to smaller, specialist music ensembles in Scotland with offers of creative collaboration, all with a view to increasing the experience, creativeness and versatility of his own players.
When the amazing, multi-talented Jörg Widmann returns in October for the first of two Season appearances, he will perform his own clarinet concerto Echo-Fragmente, postponed from last Season, and written somewhat challengingly for two orchestras: one modern; the other period-instrument Baroque.
‘The intention last year was to make it work by simply dividing the RSNO, but when reprogramming it I thought, why don’t we do this with the real thing? So we’ve brought in the Dunedin Consort to partner us,’ Mackie reveals. ‘That’s given rise to plans for a more extensive three-year partnership we’re now developing with Dunedin.’
Other new collaborations are emerging linked to the parallel season of chamber music concerts planned for the new Season, including groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble. Mackie and Søndergård are determined ‘to find a new way’ that will ultimately pay dividends for the RSNO as an artistic powerhouse and for its players.
‘In the long term, we have a vision of a really dynamic group of players, who can do film scores one day, a classical recording the next, while still maintaining top-class live performances at both symphonic and chamber level,’ says Mackie. ‘Then think of the benefits when we take all that quality into schools as part of our educational programme.’
To a great extent the RSNO’s expanding horizons were fuelled, not hampered, by the pandemic. It was well ahead of the game in initiating the online delivery of streamed performances to potentially global audiences. ‘Through Alistair’s insistence, the world now knows so much more about us,’ says Søndergård. ‘We’ve become very proactive at getting things out there, and it’s got to stay that way.’
Again, he turns back to player empowerment, mutual trust, as the fundamental driver of such ambitions, which has played its part in producing so many powerful and moving RSNO performances in recent times.
‘Often in rehearsals now, I just stop conducting. I don’t need to explain everything anymore. When we played Rachmaninov a few weeks ago I just went into the room and let them play a whole movement without me. That’s when real magic happens.’
(This article is also available in the RSNO 2022-23 Season Brochure. Full concert details for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee available at www.rsno.org.uk )
A printed programme, an interval, and the reopening of the City Halls bar to service the latter: a sure sign, at Friday’s SCO concert, that things are edging towards normal.
As for the concert itself, it was vintage Maxim Emelyanychev, even if that seems a slightly odd adjective to use for an SCO chief conductor still in his early 30s. But vintage it was, in the sense that the supercharged Russian whisked us through a heady mixed cocktail of Beethoven, Liszt, Sweelinck and Mendelssohn complete with the unexpected twists that are his permanent trademark.
There was one ingredient that didn’t quite come off. For the second half he prefaced Mendelssohn’s pious “Reformation” Symphony with his own arrangement of the Beati pauperes (motet settings of the New Testament Beatitudes) from Dutch Renaissance composer Jan Sweelinck’s Cantiones Sacrae.
In theory, the programmatic hypothesis made intriguing sense: Sweelinck, a Catholic who likely turned to Calvinism amid the religious turmoil of the 1570s; Mendelssohn, whose symphony celebrates the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protestant declaration in the 1530 Augsburg Confession. Played by a small ensemble on period instruments – sackbuts, serpent and Emelyanychev, himself, on cornett – there was a certain novelty and quaintness in witnessing this rarified sound world as a springboard to the Mendelssohn’s heavyweight stoicism.
The problem was its presentation. It would have worked better with a smoother segue between the two works than the complete set change we witnessed, especially as the Sweelinck was only minutes long. It made its presence seem more incongruous than inclusive.
Not that it obscured the collective success of the rest of the programme. From the very first note of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, it was clear that run-of-the-mill is not a phrase this conductor adheres to. Without losing the innate Classicism at the heart of the symphony, the natural momentum that carries it inexorably forward, Emelyanychev implanted magically judged gestures, momentary surprises, that cast it in an entirely fresh light. The unanimity of the SCO’s response was crucial in achieving that.
Then two refreshing minds came together, soloist Benjamin Grosvenor joining Emelyanychev and his team for a performance of Liszt’s single-movement Piano Concerto No 1 with compelling results. Grosvenor’s approach was utterly thrilling, on the one hand assertive and rhetorical, on the other eschewing indulgence and self-absorbed showmanship of the sort that so often skews the logic of Liszt’s cohesive thematic scheme.
I’ve never heard Grosvenor – who was famously the 11-year-old runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician finals – play with such authority and ingenuity. Not quite 30 yet, a remarkable, new-found maturity has set in.
With the quirkiness of the Sweelinck dispensed with, the closing Mendelssohn symphony brought us back to firm and fertile ground. In the wrong hands, the “Reformation”, with its robust “Ein’ feast Burg” chorale and echoing reference to the so-called Dresden Amen, can sound overly thick-set. With Emelyanychev it was anything but. Sparkle, airiness and transparency, and an SCO on top form, injected its reflective sincerity with optimistic affirmation.
Benjamin Grosvenor talks to KEITH BRUCE about playing Liszt with the SCO
Still six months shy of his 30th birthday, Benjamin Grosvenor has had a very busy career since he was runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11. As he recalls now, with obvious fondness, “the final rounds were held in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and my first real tour was with the Scottish Ensemble, so these cities hold a lot of great memories for me.”
Having formed a rewarding partnership with the RSNO and its principal guest conductor Elim Chan, recording an award-winning album of Chopin’s Concertos in that orchestra’s home studio in Glasgow, the pianist is this year working with Edinburgh’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra as a resident artist.
At the end of April he will play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the SCO under Joana Carniero, but this week his focus is on the composer who was the subject of his most recent Decca recording, Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, with the SCO’s Principal Conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.
“Liszt wrote so much music, and there are a lot of wonderful works that don’t get so much attention,” says Grosvenor. “One example would be the second version of the Berceuse that I recorded for my recent Liszt disc, which is such an atmospheric piece.
“In the context of other romantic piano concertos, the Piano Concerto No 1 strikes one as unusual and innovative in form, with this idea – as in the B minor Sonata – of a one movement (though divided into four) work united in its content by certain themes that transform throughout.
“Liszt took things very seriously when it came to these large-form pieces, and he spent 23 years polishing this one off. As one would expect, there is piano writing of great virtuosity, but also some incredibly beautiful lyrical episodes. The climbing melody in the piano solo at the beginning of the Adagio would be worthy of Bellini for sure!
“Interestingly, what was seen as startlingly modern at the time was Liszt’s use of the triangle in this piece – in the scherzo it is there in the forefront – in a way which was (though this seems really odd to us now!) seen as ‘distasteful’, as was the idea of elevating any percussion other than the timpani. It still comes across as a most unusual bit of orchestration in a piano concerto, but a wonderful effect in the context of this impish scherzo.”
There speaks a musician who has ears for much more than the virtuoso piano part, and Grosvenor has, like Benedetti, performed with a chamber orchestra without a conductor. He’s very happy to have Emelyanychev on-board for these concerts however.
“I have enormous admiration for Maxim both as a keyboard player and a conductor, and I thought their Prom last year with Mozart symphonies was thrilling. Even with a conductor involved, working with a chamber orchestra is a much more intimate experience and you can feel a lot more connection with the orchestra than in other settings. It will be my first time with Liszt in this context so I am looking forward to that.
“I have worked as a director before, but without really physically conducting as that is not really a skill I have acquired yet with any finesse.
“In the right repertoire and with a good leader it is not entirely necessary, but one’s role is obviously still quite different, as there is a responsibility to comment on and to mold some of the orchestral playing. I think Liszt could be challenging in that context but perhaps not impossible, but I would probably have to develop a slightly more advanced ability to conduct!”
You get the impression that it is a skill that is not an immediate priority for the pianist. Although he appeared to be working fairly consistently through the recent health emergency, as a solo recitalist and in his established chamber music partnerships as well as with orchestras, Grosvenor says he was profoundly affected by the hiatus.
“Initially I took some time away from the piano, which I hadn’t done for many years. I returned to it again and explored some new repertoire, and found the break to be refreshing, though it was then difficult to work in a focussed way with no concerts to prepare for.
“The pandemic hasn’t necessarily changed my focus now that that things have somewhat normalised, but certainly over the last years it has posed many challenges. I must admit I never really got used to streaming without an audience, and certainly when it came to a piano recital (without any other musicians involved) it was a very strange experience. I am very glad to see audiences back again.
“Coming out of the first lockdown the thing I really wanted to do most of all was play chamber music, and I actually put on some chamber music concerts where I currently live in southeast London. We were some of the first concerts to take place with audiences, and it was a very fulfilling experience and also hugely interesting to see things from the promoter’s side.
“And the situation is still throwing me curved balls. Recently in Pittsburgh a positive case in the orchestra on the day of the first concert meant we had to go from Rachmaninov Second Concerto to Brahms Piano Quintet with just seven hours’ notice!”
Grosvenor may have been a precociously young signing to a major label, Decca, but being a pragmatic musician with the ability to deal with such situations, rather than a glamorous star, seems to be his chosen path.
“I have always had very varied tastes in repertoire, with no real inclination to specialise, and I still feel there is so much to explore. It can be tricky therefore to find a balance between exploring the old and the new, and while I have a great interest in contemporary music I must admit I haven’t played a great deal. As to early music, of course I play Bach, but going even earlier, there is a lot of wonderful 17th century keyboard music that I’d like to explore at some point.”
So, does he envy Liszt the superstar status he enjoyed in his lifetime?
Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Thursday February 3, Glasgow’s City Halls on Friday February 4 and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday February 5.
If asked to name the main contenders for a Polish-themed concert, Chopin and Lutoslawski would certainly be among the front runners. Not so much Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013), much of whose music lies embedded in the 150 or so film tracks he contributed to, including The Pianist and The Truman Show, yet very much an accomplished composer in his own right. All three feature in this, the latest Polska Scotland concert in the RSNO’s current digital season.
The steely vitality of principal guest conductor Elim Chan suits Kilar’s high-energy symphonic poem for strings, Orawa, to a T. As an opener it is nothing less than attention grabbing. An obstinate solo ostinato folk motif gathers steam as more instruments join in, rising in pitch and intensity, the infectious energy turbocharged by Kilar’s rhythmic surprises, a metrical hiccupping owing much to Bartok and Stravinsky, and a riotous party finish that has the musicians shouting for joy, literally.
If that is Kilar’s visceral rustic impression of life in Orawa, a mountainous region in Southern Poland, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 is a product of time – the universal gloss of 19th century Romanticism – rather than place. A more stylised passion drives this music, albeit coloured by Chopin’s distinctive poeticism, and who better to deliver it than the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.
His impact is monumental in this performance, especially when his opening flourish immediately dispels the somewhat general purpose playing that Chan’s initial direction elicits in the orchestral introduction – a little airless, without sufficient delineation between the key themes.
Grosvenor asserts himself immediately, and from that martial first statement fluid melodies gush like water from a spring, always driven yet thoughtfully crafted. Immaculate finger work colours Chopin’s filigree ornamentation, adding to the enthralling intensity of the performance. Chan even finds moments of illuminating magic in the deceptively workaday scoring of the Romance, and its stormy eruptions remain tempered by a persuasive gentleness. The closing Rondo is a collaborative triumph for pianist and orchestra.
The zest missing from the opening of the Chopin is there in spades in the organic starkness of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Chan summons its demons with fiery intent, once again the pounding elementalism of Stravinsky rearing its head in the opening Intrada. She plays mischievously with the gossamer scurrying of the Capriccio offset by its central terrorising surge, and in the final Passacaglia, Toccata and Corale matches logic and abandon in a thrilling journey from fidgety, elephantine basses to the skirmishing conflagration of the final bars. Ken Walton