Tag Archives: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

RSNO / Widmann

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If you’ve ever rubbed a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass and actually managed to make it sing, you’ll know the kind of sound a glass harmonica makes. The actual instrument, invented in 1761, and far more elaborate with its horizontal tapering sequence of revolving glass bowls, enjoyed limited success. Mozart was moved to write for it, as were Beethoven, Donizetti and Richard Strauss among others. Of its more curious history, one German town actually banned it for ruining people’s health, also for disturbing the peace.

That’s hard to imagine, given the inoffensive output this RSNO audience witnessed from the instrument’s spotlight inclusion, played by Christa Schönfeldinger, in Saturday’s mainly Mozart programme. We watched inquisitively as two stage hands carried it on stage, a glistening cylindrical glass sculpture atop a wooden DIY-style frame with pedals to power the revolutions. 

To all intents and purposes Schönfeldinger looked like she was running up curtains on a Singer sewing machine, or operating some weird sonic-powered barbecue from a Star Trek episode. The sound – a soft ringing blandness – would not have been out of place underscoring the latter. In Mozart’s Adagio in C for glass harmonica its blurred tunefulness cut a cross between a seraphic ice cream van and a ghostly fairground organ.

In its own way, it was delightful, and very likely for most of us a once-in-a-lifetime experience. More interesting, perhaps, was the use of this obscure apparatus as the stimulus for Jörg Widmann’s Armonica, essentially a concerto for glass harmonica. That said, it could never, even with the mild amplification, summon up sufficient power to cut through a symphony orchestra. 

All credit, then, to Widmann’s judicious scoring, which uses the instrument’s tonal essence as the springboard for a mounting sequence of waves. The sound world is mainly percussive, exotic and impressionistic, the reediness of a solo accordion (Djordje Gajic) providing roughage to the glass harmonica’s liquidity. 

Widmann himself was on the rostrum for the entire programme, and, as well as investing his own work with absorbing potency, fed an endless stream of reenergising thoughts into Mozart’s final two  Symphonies – No 40 in G minor and the enthralling “Jupiter”, No 41 – which bookended the programme.

His physical approach was gestural, as economical and deliberate as a US traffic cop, picking out moments that really mattered or required a shift in emphasis or pace, while leaving the RSNO to work its own magic where the coast was clear and straightforward. The result was invigorating, at times intoxicating. The innermost details of the G minor symphony were given extraordinary relevance touched by light rhetorical eccentricity; the gravitas of the “Jupiter” was countered by enough sparkle and vivd clarity – even allowing for a few tired moments – to loosen the rigour of its muscular construction. 

Ken Walton

NYOS / Larsen-Maguire

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It’s heartening to think, with all the disruption to musical education and performance that happened during and beyond Covid, that our National Youth Orchestra can tackle one of classical music’s most mountainous challenges. The proof was tangible last weekend, with performances in Edinburgh and the newly-refurbished Glasgow Royal Concert Hall by the NYOS Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No 7.

Under the English-born conductor, Catherine Larsen-Maguire, there were so many moments when you could have sworn the massed musicians on stage were hard-worn professionals. For this is a symphony that demands every facet of seasoned musicianship: unbending stamina, steely conviction, technical virtuosity and, most of all, an assertive understanding of Mahler’s wild emotional thoughts.

For the most part, that’s what this Glasgow audience witnessed. Larsen-Maguire, a conductor used to working with such prodigious youth, struck an inspiring balance between strict disciplining of her forces and allowing enough latitude in solo or small ensemble passages that call for more intuitive self-expression. 

Key among the latter were the soaring violin solos of leader Chun-Yi Gang, the punchy dynamism of the orchestra’s timpanist, a trumpet section that scaled dizzy heights, and horn playing that was gloriously ripe and radiant. As for the fullness of the entire ensemble, Larsen-Maguire extracted an ever-changing array of colour, from the symphony’s sombre opening mood, through the nocturnal rumination of the two Nachtmusik movements and wilder demonic Scherzo, to the resplendent awakening of the Finale.

There was very little in this performance that did not project with emotive self-belief and impressive resilience, except perhaps the final movement, where concentration dipped but reasserted itself for a biting finish.

Exciting challenges also presented themselves, though of a different nature, in Lotta Wennäkoski’s guitar concerto Susurrus, which preceded the Mahler and featured the pre-eminent guitarist Sean Shibe. It’s a work that challenges the norm in both guitar and orchestral techniques. A clue lies in the title, which means rustling or rasping, resulting in a sound world packed with exotic colourings, ethereal effects and very little in the way of a tune.

As such, it is beguiling, Shibe at one point even extracting an eeriness from his instrument with a plastic ruler and the orchestra responding with abstract like-mindedness. That said, Wennäkoski adds fire to her music in the form of motorised rhythms, glistening textures and a surprisingly curt ending that nips a late emergence of extrovert showmanship in the bud. These NYOS players took to its alluring unorthodoxy like fish to water.

Ken Walton

(Picture: Ryan Buchanan)

RSNO Messiah / McGegan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes, from old-fashioned, heavily-populated Edwardian-style marathons that take forever and a day, to the meatless extremes of the ultra-purists who favour briskness and a cast-size that would just about fit into a lift. Thankfully the music is mostly indestructible.

With bouncy septuagenarian Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan in charge of Monday’s traditional New Year performance by the RSNO, Handel’s evergreen oratorio came as a sleek, svelte and stylish package. What really mattered, though, were the alluring intimacies, theatrical subtleties, refreshing surprises and the quietly overwhelming unity he brought to a work that many of this sizeable audience could easily have sung along to.

Some did, like those around me unable to resist joining in the Hallelujah Chorus, clearly imagining a sound in their head far removed from the tuneless grunts that actually emerged. But maybe that’s what Classical Music is missing, that spontaneous urge to go at it Glastonbury-style if the urge takes you. Next we’ll be waving our phone lights to For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.

In truth, it merely reflected the personableness of McGegan’s vision, brought seamlessly to life by a nimble RSNO Chorus, the sprightly bite of a Baroque-sized RSNO, and a superbly matched solo quartet notwithstanding the unexpected presence of Peter Harvey as a last-minute replacement for the advertised bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was ill.

The latter group were a star act. Tenor Jamie MacDougall set the scene with his opening Comfort ye and Every valley, his eyes fixed firmly on the audience rather than the score, immediately establishing a warm and vital connection. 

From hereon in, the narrative was foremost, whether issued through the gorgeous willowy countertenor of William Towers (magically enhanced by the delicate darting incision of the strings in For he is like a refiner’s fire), the seraphic purity of Mhairi Lawson’s soprano (thoughtfully changing her garb from angelic white in Part 1 to a more demure black in Parts II & III for such golden reflective moments as her I know that my redeemer liveth), or Peter Harvey’s triumphant The trumpet shall sound.

The chorus, trained by Stephen Doughty, echoed impressively that charisma, negotiating Handel’s contrapuntal trickery with effortless precision. And I did like McGegan’s mischievous quirks in getting them to stand up amusingly at key moments in the soloist’s texts – “The kings of the earth rise up,” for instance. 

They presented a neatly balanced front, beautifully blended, words clear as crystal, intently responsive to McGegan’s nuanced direction. As did the lithesome RSNO, pert and essential in its role, quietly supportive yet crucial and characterful at every turn. 

Perhaps the most satisfying outcome of this Messiah was the success with which McGegan’s limited forces managed to fill the vastness of this 2000-seater hall, not just with actual sound (there were, to be sure, odd moments where a greater explosion of sound might have been welcomed), but with an expressiveness that genuinely pierced the soul. Granted, there were one or two unsynchronised glitches in Part II, but only passing ones and never so much as to undermine the compelling spirit of this sprightly performance.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Boreyko

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There’s an understandable nervousness among concert programmers to include Russian music at this sensitive moment. But when the RSNO stuck to its guns with its advertised Shostakovich Spectacular over the weekend, it was on sure ground. No-one handed out criticism more viciously, with more obfuscating genius, than Shostakovich in his subliminal, unprovable protests against Stalin and his terrorising Soviet regime. Nowadays, we recognise his music for its true meaning.

And that meaning was made all the more compelling with the unplanned presence of Andrey Boreyko, the St Petersburg-born artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic who replaced an indisposed James Conlon. Boreyko recently voiced his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by duly cancelling all his Russian concert dates, and prefaced this programme with Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine, an emotional scene-setter to the politically-loaded Shostakovich.

The dramatic switch from this plaintive totemic 19th century anthem against Russian repression to the fearsome weaponry of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, represented here by two of the movements (arranged by the absent Conlon) from its derivative orchestral suite, was pure theatre, much in the spirit of an opera that in 1934 so enraged Stalin to publicly vilify its composer. It didn’t miss the mark in stirring Saturday’s contemporary Glasgow audience.

By this point, Boreyko had the RSNO fully alert to his intentions, plumbing the depths of the initial Passacaglia to an extent that imposed constant checks and frustration on its ripening ambitions, which in turn sharpened the impact of The Drunkard, a madcap burlesque played with vile spit and sardonic sting.

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski’s flirtatious confrontation with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 made for the perfect follow-up. It’s a work, written for the composer’s son as a test piece for his high school graduation, that professed no concealed motives other than giving the young Maxim a relatively easy time, cleverly made to sound, by virtue of its supersonic sparkle, like a virtuoso showpiece.

Trpčeski invested wit and wile in a performance so laid back he literally bent backwards at throwaway moments to adopt a near horizontal position. He opened with dazzling but captivatingly suppressed finger work, always with a threat of a smirk, throwing down a gauntlet to Boreyko and the RSNO to respond with equal impishness. It worked, the ebullience of the outer movements monetarily calmed by the still, luscious central presence of the lyrical Andante.

Not surprisingly, after leaping off the stool for the final chord, Trpčeski chose to encore unconventionally with the help of RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and its Belarusian principal cello Alexei Kiseliov in the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2. The internationalism of the impromptu ensemble held its own fascination, the playing brilliantly incisive with a strong, and appropriate, hint of belligerence.

The second half brought us Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, famous in 1937 for its confessional soubriquet, “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, but outwardly, as the composer was to hint later through rather clandestine, third party means, more a subversive snipe at cultural dictatorship.

The sense of restraint imposed by Boreyko in the jagged opening, the mountainous climaxes that bore a paradoxical robotic emptiness, the puckish rat-tat-tat of the Scherzo, the expansive, molten angst of the Largo, and the pungent irony of the Finale – what erstwhile RSNO music director Alexander Lazarev once described as “hollow rejoicing” – all came torridly together in this energised, if very occasionally unclean, performance.

But the overall message of the evening was powerful, provocative and relevant, even if much of that came about by chance. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: James Montgomery)

NYOS / Hasan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The area of music making likely to have suffered most over these past two years of Covid-enforced hibernation has surely been the communal opportunities lost to youngsters in the formative years of their musical development. To see the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland spring back to life last week, in particular the public concerts presented in Edinburgh and Glasgow by the organisation’s flagship Symphony Orchestra, was a heartening sign that the seeds of recovery are beginning to shoot.

An intrepid NYOS fielded a mighty contingent for its substantial and demanding programme of Respighi, John Harle and Shostakovich. Key to inspiring and galvanising it were two intriguing personalities, still young, but established in their fields of enterprise: British-born conductor Kerem Hasan, a 30-year-old alumnus of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, now chief conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester of Innsbruck; and the virtuoso saxophonist Jess Gillam as soloist in a work specially written three years ago for her by Harle.

Gillam was not only the star turn, but an irrepressible force of nature whose electrifying presence, let alone her exuberant blue and yellow sartorial creation, demanded nothing less in return from the orchestra. Harle’s music – the suite Briggflatts, based on the autobiographical poem by the British modernist Basil Bunting – played its own part as a vital stimulant, driven much by an infectious motorised minimalism, restless rhythmic unpredictability, rich jazz-infused melodies and a high-voltage Rant that converts its base material, Cumbrian folk music, into a delirious foot-stamping finale.

But all eyes were on Gillam, whose visible egging-on was the motivating linchpin, encouraging Hasan and the orchestra to take risks they may not otherwise have considered. If such encounters with danger took the performance to the very brink, it inspired nothing less than an explosive triumph.

To some extent Respighi’s ruminative symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, which opened the programme, could have done with some of that same alertness, not in the brash sense, but in stencilling out its scented, filigree colours. There were magical moments, from poignant solo contributions to deliciously atmospheric nuancing by the upper strings. Hasan shaped the performance with meaningful organic flow and perceptive delicacy. At times, though, it just seemed to lose its immediacy and luminescence.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 offered a very different challenge, technically daunting and driven emotionally by the composer’s feverish thoughts at the time of writing,1953, just after Stalin’s death. Again, Hasan captured the broad picture magnificently, from the tortuous granite-like intensity of the opening movement, through the abrupt second movement scherzo and personalised nocturnal reflection of the third, to the ultimate raging force of the finale. 

There was no escaping the eager responsiveness of the young players, even when the briskness of the scherzo sent the upper strings into a near-calamitous flurry. It was ultimately an overall success, but symbolic too, perhaps, of what the pandemic has done to young people. They desperately need regular opportunities again to express themselves with full confidence and in tandem with each other. Good to see them back on track.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Kopatchinskaja

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s mesmerising performance of Stravinsky’s pyrotechnic Violin Concerto in D with the RSNO last weekend will surely go down as one of the musical highlights of the year. The Moldovan-born violinist is an out-and-out entertainer who couples effortless technical wizardry with the red-hot stage charisma of a rock star. 

Stravinsky’s Concerto, a gauche and febrile display of explosive neoclassicism, requires a stage entrance to match, and Kopatchinskaja’s was the whole package. Barefooted, dressed in an exotic creation, her first chord struck an unquestioning authority from which conductor Thomas Søndergård and the orchestra took a firm lead.

Even when she wasn’t playing, Kopatchinskaja’s physical presence was eye-catching and centre stage, bobbing and jiving to Stravinsky’s edgy rhythms. It was a performance that feverishly illuminated the music’s freneticism, one minute grotesque and anarchic, the next darting and artful, at times even reflective and sensual. The encore – an imagined cadenza for the Stravinsky –  ended as a virtuoso duel between Kopatchinskaja and RSNO leader Sharon Roffman.

With such a tour de force completing the opening half, it was easy to forget that the evening had opened with the world premiere of Carlijn Metselaar’s Into The Living Mountain, written by the Edinburgh-based composer as winner of the RSNO 2019-20 Composer’s Hub Scheme. Based on Nan Shepherd’s eponymous book about her experiences climbing in the Cairngorms, Metselaar captures the landscape’s shifting moods – its mysteries, its beauty, its dangers and austerity – within a well-crafted, free-flowing score.

Søndergård, in a neatly-textured reading, also drew on the music’s slightly archaic charm, a nod to early 20th century modernism in the rawness of its big themes, some of which could so easily attach themselves to a Hitchcock film.  

The fullest forces were reserved for the concert’s second half and the all-consuming passion of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2. If Søndergård chose to conduct this without a baton purposely to delicately handcraft it, he made his point. There was a sensuousness throughout, spaciously affirmative in the opening movement, joyous and radiant in the second, breathtakingly lyrical in the Adagio, and brilliantly conclusive in the finale. 

Ken Walton 

RSNO & BBC SSO / Edusei

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This wasn’t the first time the RSNO and BBC SSO had joined forces. Reproduced in the programme booklet for this latest collaborative tour de force was a poster dating from 1941 featuring a joint ‘orchestra of 98 performers” under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. Wednesday’s concert, forming part of this week’s conference in Glasgow of the Association of British Orchestras, raised the bar to 101 players.

It was a supreme concert, with repertoire that wasn’t even around when Boult commanded his earlier wartime alliance. Shostakovich had begun his Violin Concerto No 1 later in the 1940s, but it never saw the light of day until 1955. John Adams’ pseudo-symphonic Harmonielehre – last heard in Scotland courtesy of the LSO under Simon Rattle in the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival – dates from the 1980s. The programme opened with the UK premiere of Samy Moussa’s Elysium, originally premiered last year by the Vienna Philharmonic in Barcelona’s Gaudi-designed Sagrada Família.

It was possible to sense something of the vast aura that premiere must have had in Barcelona’s magnificent, resonant cathedral, even in the relative dryness of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, where German conductor Kevin John Edusei’s realisation of Moussa’s vision of the heavenly journey was a performance of elevating intensity.

It was also easy to understand why the original premiere coupled Elysium with a Bruckner Symphony. Edusei didn’t have that comparison to make on Wednesday, but he elicited from his massed players a shuddering, throbbing resonance that implied kinship with Bruckner’s chunky building blocks. It made for a breathtaking concert opener.

And it prepared the ground for Spanish violinist María Dueñas, who may cut a petite physical profile, but who set this densely-packed Shostakovich concerto savagely ablaze, from the gnarled potency of the opening movement and dance-fuelled swagger of the wicked Scherzo, to the sweeter sunrise moment that lifts the Passacaglia and the unrelenting irony of the finale.

If the uniqueness of the situation had already revealed a palpable excitement in the joint orchestral response – you wonder to what extent a sense of friendly competitiveness existed within – that was to erupt big time in John Adams’ mighty Harmonielehre. Like much of his music, it fuses together a minimalist chassis with a freer superstructure that is unafraid to express itself in post-Romantic terms.

Edusei’s rhythmic discipline ensured a performance that was grippingly taut, yet heightened by the sparkle and glitter of exuberant orchestral colourings. Adams wrote his three-movement work in response to a surreal dream in which an oil tanker in San Fransisco Bay suddenly upturned and shot into the sky like a rocket. Hearing it live was, indeed, like entering an unreal world, but the optimism expressed in this joyous performance said something very different to the unreal world we’ve all just been living through. 

Ken Walton

Available on BBC Sounds


Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was no denying the enthusiasm that the players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and its Danish music director Thomas Sondergard, brought to their first live concert in their home venue in well over a year. As the conductor said before he lifted his baton, it was his treat to hear applause from a present audience, but also an important truth that any amount of individual practice only becomes meaningful with an audience in the hall.

The RSNO had chosen a tricky weekend to return, with the rival attraction of an England v Scotland football match for Friday evening in Perth Concert Hall and the televised finale of Cardiff Singer of the World on Saturday, but they did not have a huge number of tickets to sell. Weirdly, more listeners were permitted in Perth’s smaller hall (which had already pioneered post-pandemic live chamber music) than in the extravagantly-distanced seating on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It was a chamber-sized edition of the orchestra as well, but what a brilliantly-conceived programme of vibrant, colourful music Sondergard had chosen for them to play. On the face of it, here were three relative rarities of 20th century French composition, works by Ibert, Francaix and Poulenc; in reality we heard a glorious, compact exploration of the capabilities of an orchestra, as a collection of individual soloists, sections of similarly-played instruments, and as an entire ensemble. If a Parisian PhD student is currently working on a thesis about the supremacy of creativity in that era, Scotland’s national orchestra played the executive summary.

With just 15 strings, six winds and brass, timps, percussion and piano – every part utterly essential – Ibert’s Divertissement is a picturesque excursion that suggests a multitude of pathways (some of them very melodically familiar indeed) and pursues none of them. It is a glorious virtuosic tease of a piece, in which many individuals have engaging moments in the sun, but there are also big ensemble statements.

Principal oboe Adrian Wilson has been one of the recent stars of the RSNO’s online season, and he stepped out in front of the orchestra here for Francaix’s L’horloge de flore, a concerto in all but name, and one that shares as much of its inventive scoring with the orchestra. There was certainly sparkling solo work from Wilson, but the bassoons were also very busy and there are a number of differently-built ostinatos to indicate the workings of the clock.

The concert culminated in Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, which demonstrates both the tunefulness of the Ibert and a brilliance of rhythmic writing that draws the listener compellingly into its narrative, and  featured a lovely solo turn from first trumpet Chris Hart in its penultimate movement.

Welcome back, RSNO. Let’s have more very soon.Keith Bruce

RSNO / Chan / Benedetti

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Regardless of the many obstacles that have had to be overcome, the RSNO has maintained the shape of its programme of work over recent months with a tenacity that does the organisation much credit. And as they have done since live performances were abruptly silenced in March 2020, the players of Scotland’s national orchestra step up to the plate here with thoughtful contributions to the online world, joining conductor Elim Chan and soloist Nicola Benedetti in making interesting spoken contributions to this concert film, as well as playing their socks off.

With a return to performing for audiences scheduled for next weekend in Perth and Glasgow, this concert neatly wraps up the current digital season, Benedetti returning as soloist for Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2 (having opened the series with No 1). That work completes the Polska Scotland strand of the season, while Christopher Duncan’s Stac Dona, which precedes it, is part of the Scotch Snaps strand.

Like the Craig Armstrong piece in April’s last concert, the latter is from the Lost Songs of St Kilda project, arranged by a young composer better known under his pop alias, C Duncan, whose parents have played with the orchestra and whose aunt still does. Scored for strings and harp, it is a very filmic, romantic piece that makes the most of its folk melody.

The Szymanowski also springs from its environment, Chan notes, in particular the mountains of Poland. This may have been the first time she and Benedetti had worked together, but both women are so familiar with the orchestra that introductions were unnecessary. Beginning with a rumbling piano chord and a duo of clarinets, it is a work that quickly becomes very intense, and virtuosic for the soloist, with powerful scoring for horns, brass and percussion.

A single 20-minute movement, its cadenza may be the work of the piece’s dedicatee, violinist Pawel Konchanski, but it is very much of a piece with the atmospheric and picturesque whole. This is a full-blooded performance, with some sparkling dialogue between Benedetti and the wind principals, and some gorgeous playing on the lower strings of her instrument on the Andantino before the frenetic dance of the finale.

Many of these elements mirror parts of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, in what is another ingenious piece of programming, with the virtuosity now being required of everyone on the platform. This is a work that needs the orchestra’s return to the big hall, with the brass in the choir stalls, but it is also intricate, and Chan recognises the dangers of losing sight of the bigger picture when she speaks of taking an approach that is “not nerdy”.

The gentle beginning here is on the low strings, and if the Szymanowski is a political work with a nationalist agenda, Bartok is internationalist, if no less political, writing in the middle of the Second World War and after the diagnosis of the cancer that would kill him. The brooding, mystical third movement may be indicative of his state of mind, but it is surrounded by the distinctive staccato rhythms of the second and the musical japes of the fourth. And just as Benedetti had danced us home, the Presto finale trips fantastically to the last bar.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Chan/Grosvenor

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

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

Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk


Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

For all that it looked unusual on paper, the RSNO’s digital season offering this week makes profound sense as a programme in performance. As precursors to Schumann’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine and Brahms’s orchestral arrangements of six Schubert songs also showed refreshingly original thinking on the part of German/Ghanaian conductor Kevin John Edusei.

The conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra is one of three RSNO debuts onstage, but his appearance has long been expected. When he jumped in to deputise at concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2019 and the BBC SSO at the start of 2020, senior RSNO figures were at Glasgow City Hall for the concerts. As director of the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms, on tour and on disc, his profile in the UK is already high and an appointment somewhere cannot be far away.

The other two new faces are singers Susanna Hurrell and Felix Kemp, the baritone a late substitute for Marcus Farnsworth. They are placed among the players for the Schubert songs, a somewhat random selection from the catalogues of both their composer and their arranger, with texts by Goethe, Schiller and Sir Walter Scott among them. The latter, Ellen’s second song from The Lady of the Lake, is the highlight for the soprano, with delicious accompaniment from the horns and bassoons, although Hurrell makes a particularly beguiling impression with the earlier Geheimes (A Secret) by Goethe.

Kemp has a very fine voice, with excellent dynamic control across his range. Baritone songs open and close the set, and he clearly relishes the operatic possibilities of Schiller’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus.

The featured soloist in the opening Mahler is associate principal trumpet Jason Lewis, in a curiosity from the composer’s catalogue that began life as part of a lost score of incidental music for the stage, before being repurposed, and then dropped, as the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony.

Although not written for a small orchestra – this is Mahler after all – it sounds very compact in Edusei’s hands, the conductor coaxing a very measured sound, with immaculate balance, in his first music with the orchestra. It sets a template, not just for the Schubert/Brahms, but especially for the Schumann. As well as having an Adagio built on a four-note figure as heart-rending as anything in the canon and first movement cadences that could only be Schumann, the Second Symphony requires some very brisk playing indeed, the scampering runs in the strings for the Scherzo prefigured in that opening movement and more lightning finger-work from the violins in the varied pace of the Finale.

With bold tempi and clear communication, Edusei brings a precision-tooled and full-blooded reading of the work from his new friends at the RSNO.

Available via the RSNO website to July 30.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Gardolińska / Dvorak 7

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In her debut with the RSNO, Polish conductor Marta Gardolińska begins on home territory. She recalls, in her spoken introduction, the very folksongs her grandmother once sang to her, which Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski incorporates into his Little Suite (Mała Suita) for orchestra. 

As a starter then – indeed as the single indigenous work in a programme filed under the RSNO’s Polska Scotland tag – this delightful Lutoslawski gem from the 1950s finds the emergent conductor, orchestra and music wholly at one. It’s a fine induction for the earnestly fastidious Gardolińska, whose associateship in recent years with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has not gone unnoticed.

She brings a springlike freshness to Lutoslawski’s occasionally skittish suite, drawing infinite mood and colour from his limitless manipulation of the folk material. Those delicate lyrical strands, variously offset by Stravinskian rhythmic warfare or belligerent or woozy hints of jazz, forever stay refreshed by the persistent polytonal harmonies that spread an even spiciness throughout and give this music its exotic transparency.

The contrasting heft of Dvorak’s Symphony No 7, much more elemental in concept to the instant popularity of the Eighth and Ninth, isn’t so initially comfortable in Gardolińska’s hands. There’s a cumbersome stolidity that weighs down the initial outward journey, which lacks the inevitability pushing onwards and upwards to that first gloriously resolute legato melody. Too much maestoso; not enough allegro, perhaps.

It’s not long, though, before the cogs begin to align, and by the close of the opening movement there’s a sense we’re going places, even if the subdued calm of the final bars crave greater amplitude.

Gardolińska’s leisurely amble through the slow movement recalls the folkish hues of the Lutoslawski, with shapely intertwined soloing from all corners of the orchestra. The scherzo sensibly plays itself, and in the finale, the ignited, inexorable passion is more the force of nature it should have been in the very opening bars.

It’s interesting to see the chemistry between Gardolińska and the RSNO grow as the symphony progresses, even though this is a recorded performance. That alone sends a message that she’ll be very welcome back. 

Ken Walton

Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO: Søndergård / Benedetti

RSNO: Søndergård & Benedetti
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The story of Poland is a volatile one. So it is inevitable, even in the very first programme of an intermittent Polska Scotland mini-series which runs through the RSNO’s new digital summer season, that some of its music should reflect that historic turmoil.

The opening concert, which now sees the orchestra relocated to the de-seated stalls area of the main Glasgow Royal Concert Hall auditorium, enabling the  deployment of a larger contingent of socially-distanced players, is a welcome sight and sound. Moreover, it paves the way for more expansive programming. 

In this case it is music by Mieczysław Weinberg, Karol Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik, a strange but intriguing mix of style and influence (musical and political). In charge is RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 (she returns for the second concert at the end of the series), the piece that secured her the career-launching 2004 BBC Young Musician prize.

That was 17 years ago, and it’s a more musically mature Benedetti who garners every ounce of lyrical passion and glistening heat this time round. There is also a wonderful air of composure in her performance, no better illustrated than the floating, timeless initial entry that instantly becalms the orchestra’s restless introduction.

Thereafter, the journey is one of mercurial fascination, expansive eloquence, crisp virtuosity and melting, poetic beauty. Søndergård exerts his own authority where the opportunity presents itself, from rip-roaring orchestral climaxes to the breathiest of moments, where time stands still. But this is triumph of partnership, no better illustrated than in the ethereal melting away of the final bars.

The east-west tug-of-war affecting Poland in the 20th century sent artists in various directions. For Weinberg, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, the ultimate draw was Moscow, encouraged there by Shostakovich whom he admired greatly. There’s no mistaking the latter’s influence, nor Weinberg’s Jewish heritage, in the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, which opens this programme.

From its growling lugubrious opening there is a lingering shadow of nostalgia, even where Weinberg opens the floodgates and unleashes the full orchestral might. That hint of suppressed rapture permeates this mostly trenchant RSNO performance, with only a suggestion of nervousness from the exposed violins in their opening bars.

For Panufnik, the escape route from Soviet-run Poland led west, defecting to the UK in 1954 and leading a successful life as a conductor and composer up to his death in 1991. His Symphony No 3, Sinfonia Sacra, was written in 1963 to mark 1000 years of christianity in Poland. The RSNO gave the Polish premiere in Warsaw in 1968.

Based on the earliest-known Polish hymn, the Bogurodzica plainsong, there are two parts to the symphony: Three Visions and Hymn. With the RSNO brass standing aloft like heraldic warriors, their impact here possesses a thrilling undercurrent of menace. Søndergård plays on that, but equally on its haunting mysticism, at its most sublime in the quiet strings of the second Vision. He also shapes the drama in this powerful symphony with unstinting, ultimately overwhelming intent.
Ken Walton
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO/Bloxham: Clydebank 41

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In different times than these, the 80th anniversary of Scotland’s worst aerial bombing carnage in the Second World War might have been marked by the inclusion of RSNO Principal Horn Chris Gough’s new work remembering the Clydebank Blitz in a live concert by the orchestra.

Instead the premiere of the work, commissioned by West Dunbartonshire Council’s Culture Committee, is on the orchestra’s YouTube channel, the filmed performance in Glasgow, conducted by Tyne-sider Jonathan Bloxham, prefaced by ten minutes of documentary written and directed by Tony McKee and narrated by Liam Stewart.

The collage of film, still images and sound that McKee has provided gives a hugely informative and powerfully compact context to Gough’s music, which then elides into the performance by way of some pastiche black and white “newsreel” of the orchestra in rehearsal.

The piece does not attempt to soundtrack the destruction of Clydebank itself, using an interlude of air-raid sirens and the over-head rumble of heavy bombers (with accompanying video) as an interlude between its two movements. The opening, The Steady Grind of Wartime Life, carries its own echoes of those sirens alongside the mechanical beat of pizzicato strings and muted brass.

Following that interlude (The Blitz Comes to Clydeside), the picture of Desolation begins with a plangent cor anglais, underscored by bass clarinet. The wind section theme, derived from a folk song, On the Banks of the Clyde, which the composer sourced in the Vaughan Williams online archive, is then taken up by the strings, and then brass, becoming a hymn of resilience.

As the work concludes, the names of all 528 who died in the bombing of March 13 and 14 1941 scroll up the screen, the range of ages, from primary school children to pensioners, and the many members of the same families all too evident.

There’s a lot else to notice here: the orchestra’s commitment to new music in its Scotch Snaps strand; the simultaneous link with the digital season’s Polska Scotland theme that the Clydebuilt Polish Navy destroyer ORP Piorun was back at the John Brown yard for repairs and helped repel the Luftwaffe.

In different times than these, much of this might have passed in the brief flourish of, at best, two concert hall performances for an audience of a couple of thousand. There is some reason to be grateful that the fine work of Gough, his RSNO colleagues and their associates is accessible to many more in its online incarnation.

Keith Bruce