RSNO / Wilson
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
For anyone unclear what a conductor does – particularly one visiting for a single weekend’s concerts in a season – Saturday’s performance by the RSNO under John Wilson provided the perfect illustration. Since his contract with the BBC Scottish ended, we do not see enough of Wilson in Scotland, and his execution of this brilliantly-conceived programme showed what a loss that is.
Music from the second, third and fourth decades of the 20th century, played in chronological order, was as fine a showcase for a large symphony orchestra as might be found anywhere in the repertoire. The mutual admiration between Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin is well-documented – and was amusingly recounted by the conductor in his introductory remarks – but the trans-Atlantic musical conversation that Wilson revealed, with Rachmaninov possibly eavesdropping on the long path to his Third Symphony, is rarely so clearly expressed.
The 1912 orchestration of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales calls for six percussionists, two harps and celeste, and begins in a style that seems a precursor of Kurt Weill and Weimar cabaret music. The eight short pieces are often very beautiful, and benefitted here from the expressive flute of Katherine Bryan, who had a starring role through the evening. The work’s final bars were quite exquisitely shaped by Wilson.
In the mid-1920s, Gershwin was clearly still learning his orchestral craft, the immediate cross-over success of Rhapsody in Blue notwithstanding. Led by the timpani, the Concerto in F, begins like a Broadway overture, but the closing movement starts with a clear “borrowing” from a Stravinsky ballet score before asking the piano soloist to explore his inner Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis.
Soloist Louis Schwizgebel revelled in the bluesy chords he was asked to play from the start, as well as in his proximity to the front desk of the violins and leader Emily Davis, who has a few bars in the style of Joe Venturi in a central slow movement that also included a fine solo from first trumpet Chris Hart. There is often a big-band feel to the music Gershwin writes for winds and brass, but he was already a good distance from the work he wrote for Paul Whiteman.
Schwizgebel made the demanding piano part look breezy and capped it with a perfectly-chosen encore of a Jazz Etude by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, which was dreamily atmospheric.
If performances of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 3 are comparatively rare, it’s perhaps because the work lacks the ear-worms that litter the composer’s other work, and persist in the mind afterwards. Instead its riches lie in the thorough exploration of all the sounds an orchestra can make and Wilson was all over every detail of the score, insisting on fine gradations in the dynamics and precision engineering of the balance for the solos, which come from every section and front desk.
The lush orchestration of the opening movement is followed by an Adagio that here glanced back to the start of the concert in sounding startlingly French, while the carnivalesque finale is as much Hollywood as Mittel-Europe. In 1936, sadly, that musical consensus so meticulously expressed here by Wilson and the RSNO was about to be torn asunder.
Picture: John Wilson