RSNO’s ‘Pastoral’ is one of the best 2020 contributions to the 250th celebrations of Beethoven’s birth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Christopher Gough, Penderecki: Aleksei Kiseliov (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Cornelius Meister (conductor). Livestreamed from RSNO Centre, Glasgow, 4.12.2020. (GT)

Cornelius Meister conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Penderecki – Adagio for Strings (from Symphony No.3)

Christopher Gough – Three Belarusian Folk Songs (world premiere)

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’

This concert was he first in a series backed by the Polish consulate in Edinburgh, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and the Ministry of Culture in Poland for a series ‘Polska Scotland’ marking the centenary of Poland’s independence. Penderecki has been a feature of Royal Scottish National Orchestra programmes for many years, two years ago, Anne-Sophie Mutter gave a fine account of the composer’s Second Violin Concerto here in Glasgow. Penderecki wrote his Third Symphony in 1995 and, in 2013, the Polish master decided to give a second life by restoring his Adagio from the symphony and removing the wind and percussion for a separate piece.

The Adagio for Strings opened quietly in a funereal mood with intensive commitment from the violins, as if in mourning, but with a measured degree of profundity, and slowly the tempo intensified to an agonising level with the theme shared by solo violin, viola, cello and double bass where the idea descended to deep contemplation. There was again a rise in tension with finally, a solo by Sharon Roffman on the violin before slowly dying away into nothingness. This served as a fine introduction to the RSNO season of Polish music. Certainly, it should open listeners to try other works by this great composer who more often seems to be the successor to Shostakovich in the symphonic genre.

That the second piece should be a world premiere is wholly based on the political crisis in Belarus in 2020. Aleksei Kiseliov – the principal cello of the orchestra – hails from the former Soviet Republic and has won the support of his fellow musicians in reacting to the ongoing protests against the violence committed by the government against peaceful protesters. Christopher Gough – himself the RSNO principal horn – was inspired to write a piece in sympathy with the people in Belarus. Gough has another career as a composer and studied in Valencia and London, gaining awards Music for Young Composers’ Prize and the Royal Northern College of Music’s Young Composer for Brass Band Award Prize. Two of the three Belarus folk songs are popular songs of the Polish folk group Laboratorium Pieśni. I have never been in favour of the arts getting involved in politics, however, the story of the Belarus president advising people to drink vodka to cure Covid-19 shows that he is unfit to be in office. I am not familiar with any composers from the country; however, its folk music is Slavic, and one hopes that hearing this fifteen-minute-long piece will help win more sympathy among the wider musical public. This is a well written piece and hopefully will receive more performances in the country.

In the first folk song, ‘Oh, the flying cranes’, the xylophone opened brightly with chimes and the upbeat mood was picked up by Kiseliov on solo cello with a rather sad theme which quickly developed into a brisk dance with brusque rhythms, and then the whole orchestra engaged in this rather bright sequence before returning to the opening idea on the xylophone.

‘There by the Sea’ – the second folk song is a rollicking jolly dance with no hint of sadness and was notable for some fine virtuosity from the cello; there are constant repetitions of the theme which hints at political struggle. The composer states. ‘The hope is that good will come out of a bad situation, aided by dedication and strong resolve.’

‘Kupalinka’ – the third and final folk song opened in an almost weeping mood with Kiseliov’s cello sounding funereal; though a beautiful lyricism developed, and he was joined by the whole orchestra in unison. The old folk song ‘Kupalinka, Kupalinka – Dark night, where are you daughter?’ was composed by the Belarus poet Michas Tscharot and the composer Vladimir Terawski who both suffered from oppression in the twentieth century. This was a fine piece and, unlike other protest songs, is unlikely to disappear and should be taken up by other ensembles and hopefully recorded.

The Beethoven ‘Pastoral’ Symphony brought a quite different mood to the concert, opening in a wonderfully bright movement of classical romanticism. The opening Allegro ma non troppo raised one’s feelings immensely and was distinguished by dazzling virtuoso work from the woodwind and fine strings led by American violinist Sharon Roffman. Conducting without a score, the German conductor Cornelius Meister attentively directed his musicians drawing every nuance of expression from them. He is not demonstrative and carefully moves his hands and arms without any excessive body movements. The playing he achieved from his players was superlative; it seemed everyone was enjoying the bracing harmonies and colourful playing. Of note throughout, was the oboe of Adrian Wilson, and the flute of Katherine Bryan and the playing at times was world-class. The ‘scene by the brook’ was enchanting with transcendent playing from the clarinets and the bassoons. The intonation of the nightingale, quail, and the cuckoo was superlatively performed by Timothy Orpen on clarinet, Luis Eisen on bassoon, and once more, Bryan’s flute and Wilson’s oboe, aided by magical strings. The scherzo and trio sections were outstandingly enacted with fine playing again from woodwind and horns. The ‘thunderstorm’, and the ‘Shepherd’s hymn, happy, thankful feelings after the storm’ were finely executed. In a year of outstanding playing by the RSNO of Beethoven’s music – before and during the pandemic – this concert will be remembered as one of the best contributions to the 250th celebrations of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.

Gregor Tassie

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