RSNO’s String Section Banishes Winter Blues

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Larsson, Grieg, Tchaikovsky: John Lill (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra,/ Christian Kluxen (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.12.2012 (SRT)

Larsson: En vintersaga (A Winter’s Tale)
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Tchaikovsky:Symphony No. 1 Winter Dreams

It may not be snowing, but the near-freezing temperatures and the driving rain make it hard to forget that Scotland is in the depths of winter. Almost as if it were planned, the RSNO responded with a programme of wintry music from even colder climes. Lars-Erik Larsson wrote his incidental music for A Winter’s Tale for Swedish radio in 1937 and later arranged four numbers into this very attractive suite. It’s full of swaying tempi and winsome melodies, with particular use of wind solos, though the soulful theme to accompany the play’s conclusion is given to the strings. It makes for a good curtain-raiser, and Christian Kluxen paid the music the complement of taking it seriously, something that made it all the more appealing.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto is, of course, much more familiar territory, though the tempo that Kluxen and John Lill chose for the opening movement was markedly slower than I’ve become used to hearing. It definitely follows the composer’s Moderato marking, and I guess that’s refreshing in itself if it moves away from the new orthodoxy, though I sensed a lack of verve, even if the tempo added more majesty than is common, especially to the cadenza which can sometimes seem superficial. Lill’s playing seemed more stately than exciting, though the fistfuls of notes clearly hold no terrors for him. Kluxen coaxed some fabulous playing from the strings, revelling in the to and fro between violins and cellos at the end of the exposition, and raising them to near sublime heights in the slow movement. The finale was more successfully (and conventionally) paced, soloist and conductor revelling in the bipolar nature of the two main themes, though to my ears the brass tone in the final peroration was a touch on the vulgar side.

The strings carried the Tchaikovsky too, almost making me think that the work was of a higher standard than it really is. It may be the composer’s least imaginative symphony, but it’s still full of very attractive things, and the RSNO strings were determined to ensure we heard them all at their finest, be it the shivering violin tremolo of the opening, the gorgeous middle strings of the Adagio’s second theme or the winsome waltz contained within the Scherzo. Playing such lovely melodies with such skill seemed to make everything else fall away. It’s hard to prevent the final pages from sounding a little overblown, and Kluxen didn’t quite manage to pace the preceding passage in a way that was convincingly organic, but that’s more the composer’s fault than his. This conductor remains a very convincing talent; he’s exciting to watch and his obvious rapport with the orchestra is clearly having an impact. The smiles on all the performers’ faces at the final applause were almost enough to banish the winter blues, until, that is, we all stepped outside again and remembered where we were!

Simon Thompson