Tag Archives: RSNO Centre

RSNO/Sondergard

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Let us hope that the RSNO is re-energised by the move into the larger space of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the opportunity to perform with larger forces in its recently-announced new digital season, because there is a slight sense of fatigue in this final concert of the current one.

That is no fault of guest soloist Nicky Spence, who brings expressive commitment and an enthusiastic musicality to Britten’s Les Illuminations. These nine Rimbaud settings may have been written for, and dedicated to, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, but that was surely as much because of the restrictions of the time (1940) and the emotions behind both the verse and Britten’s music sound more powerful in the tenor voice. The specific dedication of the seventh of them, the bold and assertive Being Beauteous, to Peter Pears, meant that the composer himself was being neither coy nor particularly careful.

The Scottish Ensemble made a go-to recording of the work with Toby Spence (no relation) and there is a coherence to that group’s string sound – with all the percussive effects and imitation of other instruments in this score – that is often missing here. The current necessity for social distancing might be some explanation for that, except that string players in general, and RSNO ones in particular, have noted some benefit in sitting at individual desks.

The Britten is preceded by George Walker’s roughly contemporary Lyric for Strings. While there is no argument that the compositions of the first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize are ripe for rediscovery, his reputation might be better enhanced by tackling meatier fare than this early imitation of Barber’s Adagio, lovely though it is.

Thomas Sondergard’s Beethoven Five, which concluded the programme, is neither fish nor fowl – but then a hybrid of historically-informed practice and contemporary brio is what most orchestras and conductors aim for with the work these days. So we have natural trumpets and modern horns, and string playing that is brisk but not quite crisp enough in the first movement.

The conductor may be keeping his powder dry, but there is also an odd imbalance in the sound – uncharacteristic of engineer Phil Hobbs – which continues in the Andante, with the wind soloists, although all on fine form, rather too far up in the mix.

When more muscle comes into the performance in the Finale, that difficulty disappears, as does the lack of rhythmic rigour. The sprint to the tape, at least, whets the appetite for the orchestra’s return in April.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Gardner / Lewis

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Imagine this RSNO digital concert as a priceless painting encased in a tasteful picture frame that enhances, but never overwhelms, the masterpiece within. The latter is Edvard Grieg’s timelessly popular Piano Concerto in A minor; the outer casement consists of the two orchestral suites formed from the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What’s not to like?

Throw in the presence of British conductor Edward Gardner, whose current position as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic gives him a direct link to the composer (Grieg filled that post from 1880-82) and a feel for the Norwegian spirit that courses through this music. And Paul Lewis, of course, a pianist with an intoxicating ability to temper rigorous intellectual capacity with alluring simplicity and affection. The entire combination, along with an RSNO in the suavest of shape, is as near perfection as you’d hope.

Neatly filmed and produced, and with unpretentiously informative spoken links from tubist John Whitener, violist Katherine Wren, and Gardner and Lewis themselves, this is also a medium which the RSNO is now well on top of. We’d all like to be back in a live situation, but there’s no denying the new skills that have been learnt through desperate measures, slickly on display here.

Gardner’s shaping of the two suites is masterly, poetically restrained, but engrained with a crystalline folkish dynamic that brings every fresh detail and sighing nuance to the fore. He opens with Peer Gynt Suite No 2, arrestingly dramatic to begin with, but then a subsequent cocktail of vying charms, from the heavily pastiched Arabian Dance (its opening flute duo weirdly reminiscent of Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme tune to 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother’s Do Have Em!), to the sassy Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and calming simplicity of Solveig’s Song.

The more popular numbers – Morning Mood, Ase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King – follow the concerto in Suite No 1, again lovingly shaped, the emphasis on richness of tone and unmannered suppleness. The shimmer of muted strings in Ase’s Death is sublime.

At the heart of this programme, though, is the clean-cut, effortless precision of Lewis’ concerto performance. He stops well short of proclaiming total detachment, allowing Grieg’s immortal themes to flow naturally from his disciplined fingers, avoiding temptation to sentimentalise, and knitting together the entire edifice – which too often invites misplaced overindulgence – in a riveting display of explosive control. 

Gardner supports without intrusion, but always with something to add to the mix, a counter-emphasis here, a loving whisper there. It’s that time of the year when the RSNO traditionally offers a St Valentine’s concert. Be sure and make a date with this one!
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Lowe / Cargill

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A “technical issue” resulted in Friday’s planned release of the RSNO’s first 2021 digital concert being delayed until Saturday. Given this glitch offered a version that chopped the final bars off Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the decision to delay was wise. There’s nothing worse than experiencing the same fate as the long distance runner whose legs buckle a few metres short of the finish line.

Be assured, the rectified version takes us all the way, with a rousing end to a performance in which conductor James Lowe and the orchestra finally feel at home with each other and a mutually conducive spark is lit. 

Lowe was brought in to replace Ryan Bancroft and a programme originally intended to feature violinist Midori in the world premiere on Glanert’s Violin Concerto No 2. In its place comes the popular Dvorak symphony and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

The opening work remains unchanged, Errollyn Wallen’s surging Mighty River, written in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial of the signing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Like the political momentum gathering pace then for a lengthy ongoing liberation campaign, Wallen’s metaphor of choice is the unstoppable power of water, its vitality, the unceasing journey that a mighty river undertakes in search of the open sea.

Familiar tunes make their presence felt: Amazing Grace feeds through the opening bars like a shared opening prayer; the spiritual Deep River more immersed within the later fabric of increasingly frenetic textures. The language encompasses echoes of Copland’s fresh-faced dissonances, powering minimalism à la Reich or Adams, besides Wallen’s own lyrical, occasionally mystical fingerprints. It is a compendium of 20th/21st century Classical Americana underpinned by incessant, pulsating energy. 

This performance doesn’t quite get to grips with all that. It’s more matter-of-fact than edge-of-the-seat, more routine than gripping, especially where the vital underpinning rhythmic motor seems more content to chunter along than switch to overdrive.

Cargill’s presence in the five songs that make up Wagner’s gorgeous Mathilde Wesendonck settings provide a welcome instant transformation. The rich sonority of her lower range channels their emotional depth from the offset, Cargill brilliantly fractious in Stehe Still – a touch of the Wagnerian nasties – and glowingly ecstatic in Im Treibhaus, spine-chillingly intense in Der Engel and aptly dreamy in Traume.

Hans Werner Henze’s orchestration poses its own challenges, the highly exposed solo lines and curious colour mixes dependent on super-refined management. While Lowe’s direction provides inoffensive, efficient support for Cargill, it struggles to find the vital essence of Henze’s weird and wonderful intentions. They are more convincing than they sometimes appear here.

No lack of conviction when it comes to the Dvorak, despite niggling aspects of (recording?) balance that occasionally vulgarise the opening Allegro molto. Thereafter, there’s the leisurely Largo, sprightly Scherzo and wholesomely conclusive Allegro con fuoco to seal the deal on a programme that takes its time to fully settle.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Meister / Dego : Beethoven 7

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The musicians of the RSNO do a nice line in practical observations in their pieces to camera introducing the music of this digital season concert. It is not so much about demystifying their work as making the audience at home aware of some of the challenges they face. So Chris Hart’s brief guide to playing a natural trumpet and Adrian Wilson’s warning of the trap Beethoven set for unwary oboe players are incidental joys of the last of the series in this troubled calendar year.

For all that the format is well-worn, there are also practical considerations behind a concert programme that runs overture/concerto/symphony, and this is a classic example of its success.

The symphony is Beethoven’s Seventh, the favourite of many, and conducted here, without a score, by Cornelius Meister in the manner of a man with very individual opinions on how it should go. If you only heard the stormy Finale, full of forceful dynamics and taken at an impressive speed, the chances are you would not guess that the first movement is bright and light, but far from as brisk as it is often played these days. And the swift segue from the first straight into the pulse of the Allegretto would not lead anyone to predict the contemplative pause Meister takes between the other movements.

Although the presence of four double basses hardly makes for a huge symphony orchestra, this is as large a band as any of us has seen recently, with the socially-distanced RSNO players filling every corner of the available space in the orchestra’s excellent rehearsal room. It has a superb acoustic, and the recorded sound is full of detail and ensemble richness, with Linn’s Phil Hobbs and the BBC’s Andrew Trinick sharing production duties.

The mature Beethoven is preceded by two distinct phases in the short life of Mozart. His final Violin Concerto, No.5, is known as “The Turkish” for the supposed ethnic influence on the last movement, so preceding it with the Overture to his (later) Turkish-set opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, makes musical sense. However,  after giving the programme that suitably energetic opening, with Hobbs at the controls, the conductor took a break.

Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego will be recording the Mozart Concertos for Chandos with the RSNO and Sir Roger Norrington, and that team performed the Fourth in February of last year. Here, however, Dego shared direction of the orchestra with leader Sharon Roffman, herself no stranger to working without a conductor, and the resulting creative balance (with Trinick on the desk) is quite magical.

The orchestra makes a full statement of its own sound before the soloist’s first entry, but it is only after appreciating the sophistication, lightness of touch, clarity and precision of Dego’s first movement cadenza that it is possible to appreciate how those qualities stand for the whole of this performance. Even better, both musicians clearly appreciate the slightly sleazy playfulness in much of the music that follows; those up-and-down chromatic phrases are rarely so teasingly phrased while appearing so elegant.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Widmann

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

He’s a conductor, a composer and a virtuoso clarinettist, so Jörg Widmann came as the complete package to an RSNO digital programme that combined Mozart’s much-loved Clarinet Concerto, Mendelssohn’s robust Reformation Symphony and Widmann’s own capricious Fantasie for solo clarinet.

It also meant that Widmann’s charismatic personality fed through every morsel of this filmed concert, not least that side of him – obvious from his affable pre-performance chat – that is undogmatic, free-spirited and spontaneously musical. If that meant pushing the letter of the score to some extremes in the Mozart and Mendelssohn, eschewing absolute adherence to tempi in favour of greater expressive freedom, it was done with such self-belief that it invariably triumphed.

What that required, in the Mozart, was an RSNO capable of engineering its own coordinated support, as Widmann’s direction was largely gestural and minimal. For the most part, the response was intuitive and beautifully symbiotic, the band instantly reactive to the teasing elasticity which he exercised in many of the work’s unforgettable themes.

Nor was it surprising to witness the smiling Mozartian brio of Widmann’s precision playing, warmed by the gritty tonal personality of his instrument, echoed in an orchestral ensemble fully signed up to his articulate, clear-minded vision. Where ensemble glitches occurred they were minor, the uppermost strings occasionally appearing thin and scurrying, but these were incidental in a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking performance.

Widmann had the stage to himself in his own Fantasie, a madcap virtuoso concert piece conceived as a one-man musical reimagining of Commedia dell’Arte. Multiple “characters” interact with surreal, often cartoon-like wit, the manic agility of the clarinet writing – even a manufactured 4-part chord – central to its savage cut and thrust. A mesmerising performance.

Nothing quite brings you back down to earth like a Mendelssohn symphony, especially the “Reformation”, written in 1830 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, complete with the gravitational “mighty fortress” presence of Martin Luther’s chorale tune ”Ein feste Burg” as the mainstay of its final movement.

As with the Mozart, but now solely conducting the orchestra, Widmann’s approach was hungry and personal. That same resistance to rigidity opened up intriguing expressive possibilities: slow, punctuating breaths that gave added weight to new phrases; a persuasive energy that fuelled the unstinting momentum; shudders in tempo that sailed close to the wind in the Andante, but never so much as to knock it off course; and solid, brazen tuttis that ripened fully in the final moments.
www.rsno.org.uk
Ken Walton

Image: Jörg Widmann