Tag Archives: RSNO

RSNO / Curnyn

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Even without the vicissitudes of the pandemic, the RSNO’s annual Messiah has been very much a moveable feast in recent seasons, and this one came to rest in an unaccustomed pre-Christmas slot that is currently more often associated with chamber choir concerts of the work by The Sixteen and Dunedin Consort (who perform it in Perth, Edinburgh and London next week).

At the same time, the gap between the performance styles of a big orchestra-and-chorus Messiah and the historical recreation of its Dublin premiere has also narrowed. With early music man Christian Curnyn on the podium, a compact version of the RSNO – still mostly of regulars – was joined by Mark Hindley at the harpsichord and Chris Nickol on chamber organ for a brisk version of the oratorio using what is probably the briefest permissible version of the score.

Led by Sharon Roffman, the strings and few reeds played their period part in crisp style thoughout, joined at the zenith of Parts 2 and 3 by the trumpets of Chris Hart and Marcus Pope and timpanist Paul Philbert.

The unique selling point of an RSNO Messiah is, of course, its Chorus and this live appearance by the amateur singers of the choir followed many a long month of inactivity thanks to coronavirus. So it was perhaps to be expected that there was something a little tentative about their first chorus And the glory of the Lord and some slightly ragged entries early on. It was not long, however, before they settled into their stride, and by the sequence of choruses in Part 2, culminating in a sparkling All we like sheep, all was well. More than that, here was often some exemplary ensemble singing, with a warmth of tone and balance across the sections – and a sense of unforced effortlessness at any pace or pitch.

All of which provided the ideal context for a very fine quartet of soloists indeed. Soprano Jeni Bern, countertenor Tim Mead, tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass-baritone Matthew Brook were superbly well-matched. All four have fascinatingly varied CVs and shared an expressiveness in their arias that served the narrative drive of the work, and Curnyn’s approach to the music. Mead and Hulett are both pure-toned with power across their ranges – especially impressive in the music for the alto – while Brook and Bern brought a more dramatic edge to their contributions. Brook’s Why do the nations? sounded especially pertinent, while Bern’s I know that my Redeemer liveth was fresh and tastefully ornamented.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Tim Mead by Andy Staples

RSNO / Ollikainen

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The resilience and application of the international music community in the face of the continuing challenges of the pandemic are remarkable. Protocols prevented the Finnish artistic director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Eva Ollikainen, from making her debut with the RSNO a week previously, when the versatile Jonathan Stockhammer stepped in to take charge of her concert, including its Finnish and Icelandic music.

A week later it was the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor who was missing, and Ollikainen present on the podium to take on Elim Chan’s programme of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker preceded by the music of Maurice Ravel. Seat-of-the-pants stuff? You’d never have known it was anything but planned from the beautifully measured performances of everyone on stage, and that also included Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, who had stepped in at short notice to replace Bertrand Chamayou for Ravel’s Concerto in G, and the orchestral players, whose full-on schedule included a couple of Childrens Classic Concerts as well as their evening shows.

If Impressionism means anything in orchestral music, Ravel’s arrangement of his Une barque sur l’ocean, from his Miroirs set of piano pieces, is surely it. Requiring a vast ensemble, almost everyone playing throughout, it is filled with swells, ebbing and flowing, ripples and lappings. A gorgeous work and the perfect aperitif for the concerto that followed.

Whatever difficulties its composition presented, Ravel’s Concerto in G is a hugely atmospheric triumph that speaks to us now in the voice of a century ago, when jazz was the lingua franca of many a musical hipster. The arresting orchestration of the opening bars sets up the entrance of the soloist, speaking immediately of the era. Brass and wind interjections, redolent of big band music, are crucial to that atmosphere, but the soulful pianism of Perianes was at the heart of everything – a relaxed and masterful performance of a challenging work. Later on the warm-toned cor anglais of Henry Clay was the key second voice, and the entrance of the violas and cellos in the Adagio was particularly beautifully realised, before a finale that was brimming with energy. That ebullience was led by the soloist, who returned to the platform with a generous helping of De Falla by way of an encore.

There were also many elements to admire and enjoy in Ollikainen’s treatment of all the best-known bits in Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker ballet, but the sweet frosted topping on this selection box was the presence of the RSNO Junior Chorus, filling the choir stalls in a socially-distanced fashion.

The pairing with Ravel of this earlier master of orchestration made fine musical sense, and the conductor resisted any temptation towards lush Romantic excess. There can be a vast distance between concert performances of this score and the work of a pit band for a Christmas production at the Theatre Royal next door, but Ollikainen’s Nutcracker was one that recognised the discipline of working with dancers, and those young singers added their wordless contribution with the same precision.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Stockhammer

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

We’re getting very used to last minute changes of guest artists, thanks to Covid. It happened again last week with the RSNO, where the advertised conductor Finnish Eva Olikainen, unable to travel, had to be replaced by the German-based American maestro Jonathan Stockhammer.

The call went out to him on Monday, and by Friday he had the originally advertised programme – a slightly chilled cocktail of German, Finnish and Icelandic repertoire – ready for Edinburgh, repeated on Saturday in Glasgow. 

He’s a versatile operator, equally at home composing for, and performing with, the Pet Shop Boys as he is engaging in cutting edge classical music with the likes of Ensemble Modern. So this relatively straightforward programme presented him with few problems. 

Everything seemed to run smoothly and confidently: a mood-setting Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin that segued dramatically into the mystical turbulence of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, in turn setting the scene for Sibelius’ thick-set Tapiola; and a second half exclusively dedicated to Brahms’ muscular Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Sunwook Kim.

What pervaded most of this, however, was a sense that the partnership had not quite had sufficient time to fully embed. How else could you explain the palpable nervousness of the upper-strings in the opening (and closing) bars of the Lohengrin, which short-changed this transcendent music of its inner warmth and subliminal lustre? 

The segue to Metacosmos was inspired, taking us in the blink of an eye from Wagner’s floating heaven-bound strings to the deep, subterranean growls that open Þorvaldsdóttir’s restless soundscape. Stockhammer sourced the powerful underlying gravitas of the latter, but there was something characterless in the more detailed texturing that may actually have come from the writing itself, a disappointing naivety informing its more prominently exposed melodies. 

There’s nothing naive about Sibelius’ last completed orchestral work, the wild and dreamy tone poem Tapiola of 1926, the challenge being to elicit a sense of momentum from its gnawing deliberations. There were many powerful moments in this performance, like a humanly emotional response to the elemental grit of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, but it lacked visceral inevitability.

Sunwook Kim’s Brahms proved to be a much-needed spark. Again, it’s a heavy-going piece, and there was a suitably firm-handed, symphonic seriousness throughout its three movements, especially from the rock-solid Kim. Stockhammer, in turn, inspired a more instinctive response from the RSNO. It was meatily argued, grandiose in scale, but with enough spontaneous bursts to bring colour at last to an evening that had hitherto struggled to take full flight.

Ken Walton 

Movie Score Draw

RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie tells KEITH BRUCE he is wooing Hollywood to soundtrack the orchestra’s future.

There are few conversations with the man in charge of Scotland’s national orchestra that do not reference his time as a working musician before he moved into management. He may not play his trumpet much these days, but his career as the leader of the trumpet sections of London’s Sinfonietta and Philharmonia orchestra informs every decision he makes.

So he talks of the importance of recording film music, as both a discipline and a well-paid element of his life in London, from first-hand experience. “For London musicians it’s a big part of their life. And it’s an interesting part of life: fast-paced, fast-moving work. I think it’s very creative work.”

As he tells it, when he first stepped into the auditorium of the RSNO’s new home on Glasgow’s Killermont Street, when he was in the city to be interviewed for the post he has held for the last three years, he was immediately struck by its resemblance to Abbey Road’s Studio No 1. Its proportions were very similar, as was its much-admired acoustic.

That is no accident, because the building was designed by Arup with recording as well as rehearsal and performance in mind. Shoehorned into a tiny site between Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the John Lewis department store, the RSNO Centre’s new space is a concrete box within a concrete box entirely isolated from the noisy world around.

As well as having audience seating that can be deployed and stowed in minutes, the room has adjustable walls, sonic baffles and curtains to tailor that acoustic to suit everything from a full symphony orchestra to an intimate chamber ensemble.

What it has lacked until now, or has had to bring in for projects like pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s award-winning Chopin concerto album with the orchestra and conductor Elim Chan, is a state-of-the-art mixing desk to capture the music.

“The two things we couldn’t change were fantastic,” is how Mackie puts it. “The room, it’s fantastic – we’ve had a number of really top engineers from round the world coming to this room and raving about it. And the musicians are really good.”

Mackie’s ambitions for the RSNO’s studio went far beyond making classical albums, and beyond the needs of the orchestra itself. 
Encouraged by the Scottish Government and Screen Scotland, there has been a boom in film and television programme making in Scotland, with the countryside suiting many story-lines and the cities seemingly able to masquerade as others around the globe and in the imagination of writers as well as being themselves.

Mackie recognised a big gap in the attractions the country offered however. “The one thing about Scotland is that you can shoot it, you can do post-production, you can do just about everything, but what you couldn’t do was have a symphony orchestra record the soundtrack. There simply hasn’t been a facility that has the space, the technology, the control room to do that.”

Until now. With the help of a legacy from RSNO patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, the orchestra has now kitted out a control room with a 72-track Solid State Logic analogue desk, partnered with all the surround-sound speakers and monitoring, with over 160 top quality microphones to pick up the performance in the room.

The man in charge of all this is the RSNO’s in-house sound engineer, now Digital Manager of the organisation, Hedd Morfett-Jones, who has an audio engineering intern, Sam McErlean, working alongside him. A graduate of the specialist course at the University of Surrey, it is a passing curiosity that his qualification was a side of music education that held no interest for Mackie when he went to the same institution from music school in Scotland.

“We’re trying to gather teams around us,” says Mackie now. “We’ve done it with our camera work. I want the same on the sound side. I don’t want to keep paying London engineers to come up here.”

Mackie’s business plan looks sound. The Glasgow Studio is on the same scale as Air or Abbey Road in London, both of which are booked up years ahead, and can charge top dollar as a result. Because the RSNO owns its facility it can offer a competitive rate to filmmakers who have to pay both the orchestral musicians and for studio time in London.

Of course there is further competition, especially from Eastern Europe, but Mackie is adamant that the musicianship on offer in Scotland gives the RSNO a qualitative advantage.

“British musicians are renowned for the quality of what they do. Our musicians will get paid the same as a London musician. The Union has rates. We will not pay less and we will not charge less than what musicians get in London, but we will be competitive because we own the studio. That’s our pitch to the market.

”There has been some training of the RSNO players in the skills required for film work as well,” he adds. “The other big thing with film is playing to click-track. So we’ve done multiple test sessions here. Our first horn, Chris Gough, did a film course in Valencia, and his final exam was six clips he had to make, to write to picture. He not only had to write the scores, but do the Pro-tools files for the technical side, and we used his final exam as a test session to test the RSNO players with complex clicks, complex sound-to-picture synchronisation.”

At the same time as Gough was studying at Boston’s Berklee College campus in Spain, principal percussionist Simon Lowden was adding a post-graduate qualification in music for film to his CV at Glasgow School of Art, and he now works with the RSNO’s digital team alongside his playing in the orchestra.

All this skills-building and spending on hardware – the SSL desk cost £230,000 and Mackie’s budget for the whole studio project was around half a million pounds – is expected to produce a return, and the chief executive sees that not as a bonus but an essential.

“All the time we’re struggling with standstill funding. I don’t see ticket income growing in Scotland, and I can’t see Government grants growing in Scotland. We simply need a new income stream if we’re going to keep going as an organisation.

“So part of what we’re doing is trying align with the initiatives of the Scottish Government , and part of what we’re doing is something that keeps musicians invigorated. But part of what we’re doing is purely economics, trying to go into a more commercial market – and I am quite taken with the idea of Hollywood subsidising concerts at the Royal Concert Hall.”

The RSNO is not entirely breaking new ground. In recent years it has worked with film composer Danny Elfman on his violin concerto Eleven Eleven under conductor John Mauceri, and on a new recording of Dmitri Tiomkin’s score for Dail M for Murder with William Stromberg. Its back catalogue with Varese Sarabande includes film scores with Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.

The first results of the new studio set-up will be seen and heard on Sky TV in December, with the broadcast of a remake of the 1972 children’s fantasy adventure The Amazing Mr Blunden. The original was scored by Bernstein, and the music for this one has been written by LA-based Scot Blair Mowat.

The composer is the most enthusiastic advocate the orchestra could have wished for. “This whole project has been an utter delight. When I got the gig, I immediately called the RSNO to see if they could record the score for this exciting new remake. Happily, the stars aligned and it was a dream come true to be composing and conducting for an orchestra that meant so much to me growing up in Scotland.

“We were delighted by both the experience we had recording with them and also the sound we achieved on the final recording. It was an honour to be the first film score to record here, of which I’m sure there will be countless more. There are exciting times ahead, and we can’t wait to come back!”

Sky TV will broadcast The Amazing Mr Blunden, featuring Blair Mowat’s new score recorded by the RSNO, at Christmas. www.rsno.org.uk

Scotland’s Studio

It is almost a decade since the Scottish Government set up a “delivery group” to cut through speculation about the desirability of a dedicated film studio in Scotland and create what most agreed would be a valuable cultural asset. Since 2013, various sites from Cumbernauld to Govan and the foothills of the Pentlands to Leith have been proposed, with the latter and Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall now seeming likely to reach fruition.

In just two short years – and years dominated by the strictures of a global pandemic at that – the RSNO has moved to create a sound studio that could prove just as significant in attracting film production to the country blessed with locations for shooting movies by making it possible to record a symphony orchestra playing the soundtrack in Glasgow.

The orchestra this week unveiled the first project to be created within that facility – music composed by Edinburgh-born composer Blair Mowat for a remake of the 1972 film The Amazing Mr Blunden which will be screened by Sky in the run-up to Christmas – as part of its launch of Scotland’s Studio before an invited audience.

With Scottish Culture Secretary Angus Robertson and Mowat adding contributions via video, RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie joined the orchestra in its home next door to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to hail the creation of a studio that matches those in London – Air and Abbey Road – for which there are long waiting times.

He said: “We’ve created a state-of-the-art facility that will give the RSNO another string to its bow in the post-pandemic landscape as the only orchestra in the UK with its own recording studio, while also giving Scotland’s developing film industry a new facility to support its offer nationally and internationally.”

Mr Robertson added: “The new studio will contribute to growing a sustainable economy for the creative industries. The RSNO plays a major role in the performing arts and the new studio will give the orchestra the opportunity to build on their already highly-acclaimed international reputation for recording and expand on its educational activities.”

Mr Mowat, who conducted the recording for his new version of the Antonia Barber children’s fantasy novel, remembered seeing Elmer Bernstein, who scored the original 1972 soundtrack, work with the RSNO on a school trip to hear the orchestra in 1997.

“Scotland’s Studio is a world-class facility and it’s a game-changer, not only for Scotland, but for anyone looking to record in the UK,” he said. “We’re in desperate need of more recording studios this size to meet the pent-up demand, and the players in the RSNO rival the best in the world.

The auditorium was already known to be well designed and flexible enough to meet the stringent acoustic standards for recording. With the help of a legacy from orchestra patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, it is now linked to a 72-channel analogue recording desk in a control room which has been named in their memory.

The RSNO has recruited Digital Manager Hedd Morfett-Jones and Audio Engineering Intern Sam McErlean to operate its new equipment, while two current players – principal percussionist Simon Lowden and first horn Christopher Gough – have recently taken post-graduate qualifications to acquire skills that will also bring additional benefit to the orchestra’s film recording ambitions.

Picture: Composer Blair Mowat conducting the RSNO’s recording of his soundtrack for the Sky film The Amazing Mr Blunden

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

About eight years ago, when Thomas Søndergård was appointed principal guest conductor of the RSNO, the late Herald music critic Michael Tumelty rightly suggested that the RSNO badly needed a Sibelius Cycle and in Søndergård they clearly “had the man for the job”.

We may not yet have had that full cycle per se, but Søndergård – who is now, of course, elevated to the main music director’s role – has been slowly chipping away at the symphonies. Last weekend he ended a glorious concert with Sibelius’s Second Symphony, based on which Tumelty’s assessment remains sound as a bell. 

It’s one of the Finnish composer’s better-known symphonies, yet like many of them there is something in its Sibelian DNA that can be as enigmatic for the interpreter as it is for the listener. It takes a very tuned-in mind to negotiate what can often seem like emotional short-circuiting and chilling understatement, and give it visceral meaning. 

There wasn’t one moment in Søndergård’s performance on Saturday that failed to connect with the music’s logic and emotional momentum. There was his supreme attention to detail – those moments where Sibelius suddenly dims the lights to reveal only a feverish swarm of buzzing woodwind, or where sheer economy of texture gives starlit intensity to lightly-scored climaxes.

Yet it was anything but clinical. In the opening Allegretto, Søndergård moulded poetic sense out of its thematic miscellany; the Andante played out its strange life and death tussle with breathtaking extremes; and the restive Vivacissimo held plenty back to make its uninterrupted launch into the Finale the moment of release it aspires to be. Well worth catching this again on the RSNO’s digital platform.

The same goes for Catriona Morison’s captivating interpretation of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, which preceded the Sibelius in the first half. The Edinburgh-born mezzo, famous for her winning performance in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is fast developing a maturity in her musical thoughts and delivery that give her performances – think no further than her characterful appearance in Strauss’ Ariadne with the RSNO at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – a very special appeal. 

This Berlioz was beautifully reined-in, Morison using the darkened lustre of her voice to breathe intense passion into the music. There was nothing trivial or posturing, even – as in the final song – where there is scope for a coquettish wink. Morison played the sophisticated card, but always with enlivening charm and warmth. 

Before all this, Søndergård opened the programme with fellow Dane Bent Sørensen’s Evening Land, an evocative meditation on two experiences of the same vivid, momentary childhood vision, one from the composer’s childhood home looking out to a quiet country landscape, the other revisiting that scene in his mind fifty years later from a noisy New York balcony.

Such contrast shapes the music’s format, a simple, hushed opening, a folk-like fiddle solo and silken nostalgia that gradually bends to the whims of growing dissonant harmonies and the relative harshness that soon feeds the New York music. A gorgeous oboe solo rekindles the opening atmosphere. As with the Sibelius that was eventually to follow, Søndergård sought soulful perfection from his orchestra.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Schønwandt

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It’s 38 years since Michael Schønwandt last guest conducted what was then the Scottish National Orchestra. Since then he has held key opera and orchestral positions in his native Denmark, as well as in Germany and the Netherlands. He brings effortless experience to the podium, which was the visible hallmark of his return last week to the RSNO.

If that resulted in smooth-running, errorless performances of Richard Strauss, Ravel and Rimsky Korsakov, there was also a casualness about Schønwandt’s delivery, at times veering on matter-of-factness, that left areas of this music somewhat featureless. 

Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration fell most victim. Schønwandt’s presence was one of unflustered efficiency: a clear beat, minimal animation and self-assured, friendly composure. The outcome reflected the input, a performance true to the letter of the law but too often lacking in passion and thrill, as if the RSNO were simply responding with due deference, asked politely to get to the end without risk or upset. 

The opening, in particular, presented a flat landscape, mustering little of the sustained intensity required to stoke this anguished music. Thereafter, it was more plain sailing, but with a welcome boost at the end – notable for the return of a signature melody John Williams surely pinched for one of his Superman movie themes – where a hint of the sublime graced the closing bars.

Would Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein’s presence in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand add a much-needed spark? His was certainly a grittily probing account of this tough-talking idiosyncratic work, written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had tragically lost his right arm in the First World War, and Schønwandt certainly seemed to shift things up a gear, reflected in a more energised response from the RSNO.

Gerstein acknowledged the warmth of the audience reaction with a two-handed encore suited to this annual period of Remembrance, Debussy’s lullaby for a hero, Berceuse héroïque, written in 1914 as a sombre and moving homage to the King of Belgium and his army.

It would be hard not to react to the story book charm and exotic colours of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade with anything less than the exuberance that greeted this performance. There were still periodic ennuis that underplayed the iridescence of Rimsky’s glittering score, but by and large here was playing that more closely matched expectations. 

Central to everything was leader Maya Iwabuchi’s beguiling solo performance, flawlessly executed, sweetly projected, and laced with sufficient lustre and enchantment to nail the protagonist’s role. At its hottest moments, this was a Scheherazade that sizzled, the final movement especially brimming with emotional heat. Just a pity it took a while for this concert to really get going.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Kopatchinskaja

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The thought occurred at the end of this adventurous contribution to the cultural programme around COP26 that it is only in very recent times that such an event has been likely to appear on the schedule of the musicians of Scotland’s national orchestra once again. Before that old hands might wistfully recall the SNO’s Musica Nova seasons at the University of Glasgow for any point of comparison.

The architect and soloist of the programme, Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, will return to play the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the RSNO in February, but here she was leading a chamber ensemble of RSNO players, with a choir of singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland directed by Tim Dean and groups of trombone and double bass students, also from the Conservatoire.

The sequence of music Kopatchinskaja had the RSNO musicians play required a range of talents far beyond their stringed instrument skills, with a great deal of percussion and performance, bowing of wine glasses and a final, rather moving procession of metronomes and night lights, slowly silenced and extinguished.

That conclusion was perhaps the clearest evocation of the environmental crisis that inspired it. More broadly, this Dies Irae, as the violinist entitled the whole evening, was a statement of opposition to the powerful as much as faith in God or humanity. Interleaving movements from the baroque pictures of Franz Biber’s Battalia with George Crumb’s anti-Vietnam War Black Angels was a colourful enough beginning, but that was only a taste of what was to come.

Re-purposing more early music in Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus motet and John Dowland’s Lachrimae Antiquae Novae on the way, and with those seven trombones prowling the auditorium, the culmination of the evening was Russian Galina Ustwolskaja’s Komposition No.2.

The only woman in Shostakovich’s composition class in her youth, UIstwolskaja lived until the first decade of the new millennium and wrote this, one her most extreme works, in the early 1970s, scored for eight double basses, piano and a large wooden box to be struck with hammers. Kopatchinskaja forsook her fiddle to play the latter, which had been borne onto the stage like a coffin.

The piece is subtitled Dies Irae, but Ustwolskaja’s precise relationship with the Christian faith, during and after the Soviet era, seems unclear. That we were to hear in it a premonition of the end of days was made explicit in the RCS singers following it with Gregorian chant of the Latin, and the entry of all the participants with those randomly clicking metronomes and flickering lights.

Sponsored by isio.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Midori

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Some things are worth waiting for, in this case Detlev Glanert’s intensely beautiful Violin Concerto No 2. It was originally earmarked for UK premiere by its dedicatee, American-Japanese violinist  Midori, as part of the RSNO’s 2020/21 season. When Covid struck the planned world premiere in Tokyo was cancelled, making a revised Scotland performance date last January, albeit streamed, the world premiere. That, in turn, proved unworkable. 

Finally it has happened, and last weekend’s Edinburgh and Glasgow performances gave us the very first airing of a work Glanert has subtitled “To the Immortal Beloved”, revealing its inspirational source as Beethoven’s famously passionate declaration of love, a letter written but never posted to a mystery woman, thought to be Josephine Brunsvik, in 1812.

Glanert takes three extracts from that letter as the emotional springboard for each of his three uninterrupted movements. In this performance, conducted by RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, the key cadenzas appeared to have structural significance as apogees of the integral sections. Midori certainly treated them as such, the potency, and at times vehemence, of her playing symbolising emphatically their referential import.

But it was the journey to each of these that offered the true substance, an opening characterised by fitful gestures and antagonistic timpani instilling a dimension of unease that operates variously within the entire work, countered by a calming stream of lyrical consciousness that first materialises in the soloist’s initial appearance. 

Through the initial soul-searching turbulence, the ocean of calm that presents a near-idyllic respite at its heart, that magical moment where Glanert wraps the quietest of pianissimos by the soloist in a shroud of scintillating percussion, and in a home straight that reasserts the concerto’s underlying Romanticism, Midori and the orchestra performed with equal measures of heightened sensitivity and rubescent heat. 

It was, of course, just one work in an artful programme aligned to the current COP26 conference in Glasgow. Besides the Glanert – justified by Midori’s personal role as a United Nations Peace Ambassador – Søndergård conducted insightful performances of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s electroacoustic menagerie Swans Migrating – the final short movement from his so-called Concerto for Birds, Cantus Arcticus – and Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 From the New World

The Rautavaara, combining a crescendoing swarm of taped birdsong with the RSNO’s expressive live performance, was the perfect mood-setter for the Glanert. As for the Dvorak, it was revelatory in the way Søndergård found new points to consider despite the symphony’s well-worn familiarity. It was as if he had taken fine sandpaper to its rougher edges, revealing as a result sensitivities in the scoring that are too often ridden roughshod over. 

That, and Søndergård’s instinctive ebbing and flowing of the tempi, guaranteed a symphonic experience that, to coin a topical phrase in Glasgow at the moment, eschewed “blah-blah-blah” in favour of fresh and productive outcomes.

Ken Walton

Available to view online until 31 January, purchasable at www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It is a matter of small debate whether Igor Stravinsky was Diaghilev’s third choice for The Firebird for his Ballets Russes, or the fourth composer to be asked. It is also a score that shamelessly plundered the work of others, not solely folk sources and Rimsky-Korsakov, but also Scriabin and Debussy. All of that is by-the-by, however, when one of the best showcases of the range and power of a symphony orchestra is played with the precision and panache that the RSNO displayed under music director Thomas Sondergard at the climax of their season-opening programme.

If the source of the ingredients is not an issue in a work that is quintessential Stravinsky – music that established his name and precipitated his move to Paris, where it was first performed – the opportunity it presents as one of the concert hall’s most exciting prospects is undiminished. The clarity of the playing across the whole ensemble here, from leader Maya Iwabuchi to the trio of off-stage trumpets, was exemplary. Sondergard’s command of the tempo gradations and dynamic variations of the work was masterly, in a performance that was by turns both hugely moving and terrifically exciting.

Even better, it came at the end of a genius programme that progressed by delicious increments toward the symphonic ballet score. The concerto element at the end of the first half was Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with the first cello of the Berlin Philharmonic, Bruno Delepelaire as soloist. A player of immaculate poise and fluency, he was matched by string ensemble that incorporated the elements of Baroque crispness and Romantic fluidity that the work demands.

The concert also had the luxury of two opening works, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture itself preceded by Matthew Rooke’s The Isle is Full of Noises!, a world premiere in the orchestra’s “Scotch Snaps” strand.

It is a little gem that is surely certain to be heard regularly, its folk themes predicting those in the Stravinsky later and its filmic quality close kin to to the Shostakovich that followed. The Festive Overture may have been music swiftly written for state purposes, a crowd-pleaser and perhaps Stalin appeaser, but the grand orchestration is of a piece with the whole tone of this evening – announcing the full-scale return of a mighty musical force.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Bruno Delepelaire

RSNO / Macdonald

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A fortnight ahead of its official season-opening concerts under Music Director Thomas Sondergard, the RSNO is covering a lot of ground with its pre-season fixtures to celebrate the return of live music before a real audience.

Following Sunday’s appearance by a fully match-fit RSNO Chorus, singing Haydn’s Creation in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall under the baton of Gregory Batsleer, here was a showcase for the orchestra’s new principal clarinet, Timothy Orpen, and Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald – a programming also visiting Dundee and Aberdeen.

The headline attraction was Mozart’s perennially-popular Clarinet Concerto, played by Orpen on the basset instrument with its extra notes at the bottom. The composer was working at the cutting-edge of technology at the time, helping develop a new instrument that was already notable for its range, and in recent years it has become much more common to perform it on the precise instrument intended, or at least a modern equivalent.

With a little ornamentation by the soloist, this was a beautifully-measured, precise, but quite unemotional performance of an old favourite. Orpen is a terrific player and Macdonald kept a very steady pulse in the strings under the lovely melody of the slow movement. He is a conductor of the clearest intentions who would surely brook no impression of vagueness of interpretation, and there seemed a slight tendency to see the work as a laboratory demonstration of the clarinet’s capabilities – but then that may well be exactly how Mozart saw it.

The works around the concerto in the programme were far from obvious choices, but both were beautifully orchestrated for an edition of the RSNO only slightly larger than required for the Mozart. It was a real delight of this concert to hear that range of musical colour in the bright acoustic of the orchestra’s new space in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall complex.

The Overture to Sibelius’s Karelia Music, his first major work, is less often heard than the Karelia Suite he later condensed from the whole thing. The suite makes more of the Intermezzo melody that everyone knows – the only original tune in the whole work – but it does appear here. What was just as audible in this performance was how fully-realised the orchestration skills of the composer were, with his symphonies years in the future.

The Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams sits half way through his varied orchestral output, but in 1943 many saw it as a valedictory work. In 2021 it is hard to say where his works sit in the canon, aside from the regular poll-topping victories of The Lark Ascending as a popular favourite.

Macdonald and the RSNO made the most persuasive case for the Fifth. The third movement Romanza is most recognisable as the work of The Lark’s composer, with its opening solo for Henry Clay’s cor anglais and, more obviously, leader Lena Zeliszewska’s violin at its end.

Elsewhere, though, it is a complex, fascinating work, mixing modernism and the pastoral, with the spotlight falling on every section of the orchestra at one time or another, and rich combinations of them in the scoring.

It is easy to hear why, after the brash Fourth, the wartime audience heard its successor as some sort of summing-up. In fact Vaughan Williams would continue to confound expectations of his orchestral writing until shortly before his death, fifteen years later.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Rory Macdonald by Robin Clewly

EIF: RSNO / Gergiev / Osborne

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

There was a marked drop in temperature on Wednesday evening in the giant tent that has been such a successful venue thus far for EIF orchestral concerts. It didn’t help, perhaps, that the RSNO Strings’ all-Russian programme, under conductor Valery Gergiev, ran well over it’s appointed time – thus the partial audience exodus during the final piece – nor that the roof sheeting was billowing wildly from the harsh gusts of wind.

Yet this was a sizzler to start with. When have we last heard this string section play with such zeal and sonorous depth as evidenced in the meaty opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings? It was the perfect vehicle for Gergiev, whose trademark conducting style – a cigarette-sized stick in one hand, the other fluttering incessantly like a butterfly – seemed in this case to communicate a fluidity and eloquence that was manifest in the orchestral response.

That said, there was a noticeable dependance by the orchestra on keeping eye contact with each other, almost manically at times. Is this how Gergiev plays it? Throwing the onus on the players to interact? Whatever, this was a performance that ebbed and flowed with the most natural musicality, that inevitable thematic recap near the end a ripe and satisfying launchpad to the adrenalin-charged sign-off.

That the originally published soloist, pianist Daniil Trifanov, was replaced by Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 was no reason to be disappointed. On the contrary, Osborne’s track record in this repertoire proved itself again with a performance in which his dominance was breathtaking. 
It’s a strange work, with a confusing backstory, the outcome of which is the presence of a solo trumpet acting sometimes as muted commentary to the solo piano, at other times as the icing on the cake. RSNO principal trumpet Christopher Hart played his part sensitively and brilliantly, cool as a cucumber but sharp as a tack. 

As for Osborne, he nailed the music’s eccentric temperament, moments of gloom and melancholy that switch without notice between fitful moods of flippancy and rage, joy and the macabre. It all sounded very hairy as the concerto reached is final moments, as if things weren’t quite together, but Osborne’s unflinching reliability and energy was ultimately the steadying force. 

Had the concert ended there, we’d have gone home buzzing and electrified. But there was still Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète to go. In the right context its gauche neoclassicism and simple sensuality would have had a welcome presence. But here it struggled, in my mind, to assert itself as a meaningful conclusion, even with the eloquent violin solos of leader Maya Iwabuchi and the generally delightful intricacies of Stravinsky’s ballet score. 

Maybe it was the increasing cold, maybe also nature’s outdoor soundtrack interfering with the music’s veiled delicacy. Whatever, it just seemed a little like an anticlimax.
Ken Walton

RSNO Combined Season

The RSNO is the latest Scottish orchestra to announce its return to the concert hall with an autumn season running October to December that combines live and digital output for the first time. Glasgow and Edinburgh feature a core of six live subscription programmes, a selection of which also occur in Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth. 

A further eight programmes, independent of the subscription series, range from popular seasonal Family to Film Music concerts, the first performances of the RSNO Chorus and Junior Chorus since lockdown, and contribute to the RSNO’s major recognition of the upcoming COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. 

Following the announcement earlier this year of Thomas Søndergård’s three-year extended contract as music director, the popular Dane kicks off the new season with a bold programme featuring Stravinsky’s Firebird and a new work, The Isle is Full of Noises!, by eclectic British composer Matthew Rooke (a former director of the old Scottish Arts Council). 

In two other programmes Søndergård conducts the world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Violin Concerto with soloist Midori, postponed from earlier this year, and a programme featuring Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with award-winning Edinburgh-born mezzo soprano, Catriona Morison.

Guest conductors include fellow Danish maestro Michael Schønwandt, who couples Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with soloist Kirill Gerstein. South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim performs Brahms’ First Piano Concerto under the baton of Eva Ollikainen, while Elim Chan conducts Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker alongside Ravel’s two-handed piano concerto with soloist Bertrand Chamamyou. 

Further to the experience gained in developing digital output during the pandemic, the RSNO is also launching a new website that will be home to its Live Streams and Video on Demand Season. Live-concert subscribers are eligible for a discount on digital tickets. Chief executive Alistair Mackie believes this means “the live concert atmosphere can be shared with people throughout Scotland and internationally”.

A permeating theme – New World – recognises the ambitions facing Glasgow’s COP26 conference, beginning before the event with Søndergård conducting Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in the same programme that features Midori, herself a UN Messenger of Peace. At the close of the conference, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja leads an RSNO chamber ensemble and the RCS Voices in Galina Ustwolskaja’s Dies Irae, written as a musical response to climate change.

Other COP26 associated works range from Rautavarra’s Swans Migrating and Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, to a performance of Haydn’s Creation by the RSNO Chorus under its director Gregory Batsleer accompanied by three new specially-commissioned poems from Scots poet Hollie McNish.

Even before the season officially starts on 22 October, the RSNO will be in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee (7-10 Oct) with a programme conducted by Rory Macdonald that includes Mozart’s popular Clarinet Concerto, played by the orchestra’s own Timothy Orpen as soloist. December sees the return of the annual RSNO Christmas Concert, with actor/comedian Hugh Dennis presenting Howard Blake’s The Snowman. Also in December, Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn directs perennial favourite, Handel’s Messiah. 

The new season sees the return of the popular Children’s Classic Concerts, including a Halloween special “Ghost Ship” featuring the RSNO Junior Chorus.

Reacting to the RSNO’s return to live concert performances, Søndergård said: “”The Season will be a celebration of coming back together, a fresh start.”

Full details of the RSNO’s 2021 Autumn Season are available at www.rsno.org.uk

EIF: RSNO/Chan/Gabetta

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta is something of a favourite in Edinburgh, having wowed Festival audiences in chamber music and orchestral settings and appeared in the Usher Hall’s international orchestral seasons. This was probably her first time in a tent in the capital though.

She was also in familiar company with RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan, as the pair have worked together at Chan’s Antwerp Symphony Orchestra – and with the Cello Concerto No 1 of Saint-Saens. Like Steven Isserlis, she has championed the Frenchman’s work, and here – and not for the first time – it did seem baffling that the piece is less often heard than those of Elgar and Dvorak. It is a flowing delight of a work with some sparkling fast-fingered passages for the soloist to demonstrate her virtuosity and beautiful tone. Only on the opening page did the tricky sound issues in this venue leave her temporarily swamped by what was a small RSNO.

Chan’s programme opened with a work by the current hippest name in US composition, Caroline Shaw, the 39-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner from North Carolina whose contact book includes collaboration with Kanye West. There was not a lot of hip-hop in her Entr’acte, a piece for strings that toys playfully with neo-classicism, references Haydn, and teeters teasingly on the edge of losing its way before culminating in a solo for the RSNO’s guest first cello.

Perhaps that looking to the work of earlier composers was intended to be echoed in Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, a work that period bands and chamber orchestras speed through as his tribute to his predecessors. In Chan’s hands, however, it was more a statement of intent for what was to come. It was a point at times too deliberately, even ponderously, made in her reading, but not without its rewards. The arc that the conductor drew from the work’s distinctive opening bars to the beginning of the finale could not have been clearer, although she did seem to be holding the orchestra on a tight rein until the dynamic pace of that closing movement.

Keith Bruce


Edinburgh Academy Junior School

“Hey ho, the wind and the rain”. Shakespeare might have welcomed a downpour during Twelfth Night, but for A Midsummer Night’s Dream he’s more likely to have wished for something comparable to a summer’s day. That wasn’t to be on Wednesday, as the earlier of two performances by the RSNO of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the latter play played almost entirely in an accompanying rainstorm.

That’s the risk this Festival, where concerts are effectively under canvas therefore exposed to the niceties of the Scottish weather. In the end, it dampened neither the performance, which flowed with seamless momentum, nor our own enjoyment of it. If anything, RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård’s flexible insight opened our eyes fully to the utter exuberance of Mendelssohn’s musical imagination and sophistication.

This wasn’t just about the music, of course, though with the RSNO in such receptive form there was no escaping the central role it played, striking up the anticipatory joys of the magical Overture before unfolding a musical narrative that shifted effortlessly between autonomous evocation and supportive underscore. Little risk of the well-worn Wedding March sounding hackneyed. It was as it should be: bright, breezy and fresh as a daisy. 

The Nocturne glowed, the Dance of Clowns frolicked, the Scherzo captured the essential sparkle. And in those brief moments where Mendelssohn calls for singers, soloists Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge were a sepulchral delight, backed by selected offstage voices from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. 

But key to the success was actor Dame Harriet Walter, whose narration was a masterclass in  theatrical poise, a compelling stylishness that required no histrionics, just force of personality and instinct for perfect timing. She and Søndergård worked in perfect harmony. The weather may have had mischief in mind, but mischief has its part to play in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Like Puck it comes in unexpected guises.
Ken Walton 

Chandler Switches Ship

Bill Chandler, who has moved from the front desk of the first violins to senior management roles in the last six of his 26 years with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has been appointed to the post of Orchestra Director with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

The BBC CO played at the Proms on Saturday, with a concert of music from the Golden Age of Broadway, and returns in September with two programmes of British film music and a score by Philip Glass. Its versatility extends to live versions of Jess Gillam’s This Classical Life radio show and Elizabeth Alker’s Unclassified, as well as regular involvement with the London Jazz Festival.

The Concert Orchestra, which is often seen as the most vulnerable of the BBC’s stable, serves two masters on the network, with commitments to both BBC Radio 3 and Radio 2, where its role as the house band for Friday Night is Music Night dates back to the days of the “Light Programme”.

Currently an associate ensemble at the Southbank Centre in London, it was announced earlier this year that the BBCCO would be relocated “beyond the M25”, although its precise new home has yet to be revealed, with speculation including the broadcasting organisation’s MediaCity in Salford, already home to the BBC Philharmonic.

Bill Chandler joined the RSNO from the Houston Symphony Orchestra, having started his career in Florida. He took up the post of Director of Learning and Engagement at Scotland’s National Orchestra while still maintaining his playing position before moving to management full time as Director of Concerts and Engagements. During the interregnum between the departure of Krishna Thiagarajan and the appointment of Alistair Mackie he served as co-chief executive of the orchestra.

He said yesterday: “It is an honour and privilege to join the BBC Concert Orchestra at such an important time in its history. The BBC CO is unique in the music world, renowned for its superb playing, versatility and relevance, all key traits in an ever-changing world. I look forward to working closely with this fantastic group of musicians and staff as we explore this exciting new chapter together.”

In a message to RSNO musicians and supporters chief executive Alistair Mackie said: “Bill has proved himself to be the most passionate campaigner for classical music being open and accessible to all. He has always been a popular and respected member of the Scottish musical community and will be greatly missed by all.

“I know he goes to the BBC Concert Orchestra at a crucial point in their life and I look forward to watching this unique British institution develop and grow under his leadership.”


RSNO Concert Dates

Those anxious to pencil concert dates into the latter months of their 2021 diaries can look forward to a new RSNO season running from October to December.

In an announcement due to be fleshed out in a full season launch later in the summer, when tickets will go on sale subject to government guidelines, Scotland’s national orchestra has unveiled the headline attractions of seven programmes. All will be played in Glasgow and six of them in Edinburgh, with one-off concerts in Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth.

In a cute terminological nod to the more-indulged sports sector, there are pre-season friendlies away in Aberdeen and Dundee on October 6 and 7 before a home performance of Mozart’s popular Clarinet Concerto in Glasgow on Friday October 8. The season proper begins with Music Director Thomas Sondergard conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird on Friday October 22 and Saturday October 23 in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Sondergard returns to the podium on the first weekend in November and again a fortnight later with Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall concerts of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony “From the New World”, and then the Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius. On the weekend in between, Michael Schonwandt conducts Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim, who stepped in at short notice to play the RSNO’s last concerts before lockdown in March 2020, returns to play Brahms Piano Concerto No1 in Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow on November 25-27, and Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan brings the series to a close with seasonal concerts of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in Edinburgh and Glasgow on December 3 and 4.



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

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