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.