Korngold’s Violin Concerto Headlines a Wonderful Evening with Storgårds and the RSNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hermann, Korngold, Tchaikovsky: Baibe Skride (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.12.2017. (SRT)

HermannLove Scene from Vertigo

KorngoldViolin Concerto

TchaikovskySymphony No.5

John Storgårds’s work with the RSNO brings out the best in both of them, and I love their now regular concerts together. Among their collaborators, he’s one of the most visually dynamic presences on the podium, and the musical chemistry he produces is always pretty special. His rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 was typically big-boned and exciting, with dramatic sweep and climaxes full to bursting; but what also impressed me was the dynamism of the sound, Storgårds managing to shade back a big orchestral wash with responsiveness and musical integrity. The opening, for example, was dark as night, with baleful clarinet sound against dark, throbbing strings, but this changed into an allegro of dramatic sweep that was borne up by some sensational string playing, throbbing with emotion but never gloopy or indulgent. Those strings bore the emotional weight of the whole work, full of fire in the first movement and blazing with majesty in finale, stopping off at a highly urbane waltz en route. Underneath them was a brass section that seemed to be itching to get off the leash, bitingly precise during the motto theme’s interruptions in the slow movement, and full of grandeur in the finale’s coda. The high point of the whole symphony, however, came, as it should do, with a truly sensational horn solo in the slow movement. Played by principal horn Christopher Gough, one of the finest additions to the orchestra in recent years, it had such bell-like clarity, such beauty, but also such fragility and a heart-stopping sense of transience. Wow!

Storgårds’s control of the work is impressive, and he generated such momentum that I could forgive some lapses of ensemble and some slightly jarring lurches in the tempo. However, the real treats of this evening came in the first half. Who knew that the love scene from Vertigo could sound so full of yearning and sheer symphonic power? The strings moved from frigid mystery to overwhelming sweep, Hermann seeming to channel Tristan und Isolde while finding remarkable psychological colour at the same time. Then Baiba Skride stepped forward with a completely delightful rendition of the Korngold concerto, cutting a confident, assertive presence while remaining totally in tune with the musical structure, pressing forward thrillingly in the finale but giving a slow movement of unhurried rapture. Meanwhile Storgårds deployed the orchestra with the subtlety of a painter, dabbing flecks of colour that never upstaged the soloist, while ensuring that the telling details, such as the first movement celesta, were never lost in the texture. He then let rip on a gloriously OTT finale, with a second theme that seemed to blaze out its own sunlight. The final minutes of the concert created one of those moments that lifts you out of your seat, making me wonder why on earth the concerto so infrequently programmed. With its singable melodies, dazzling virtuosity and luscious textures, it surely deserves to be on everybody’s list of the 20th Century’s greatest hits.

Simon Thompson

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