Elim Chan conducts a sensational performance in Glasgow of Lutosławski’s Concert for Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wojciech Kilar, Chopin, Lutosławski: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Elim Chan (conductor). Performed in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and streamed by RSNO Digital Concert online, 4.6.2021. (GT)

Benjamin Grosvenor performs Chopin’s First Piano Concerto

Wojciech KilarOrawa

Chopin – Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11

Lutosławski – Concerto for Orchestra

This programme followed a trend in the orchestra’s Spring/Summer series of nine concerts by featuring both contemporary and classical Polish music. Significantly, unlike the previous series, the orchestra are using the large auditorium rather than the smaller, more compact RSNO centre with the platform extending some ten rows into the hall and using the stalls behind the orchestra for the brass to permit social distancing. This poses a challenge for the audio engineers to portray a realistic audio sound picture. Certainly, the effect seemed similar but not without a slightly loose orchestral balance.

The Polish composer Wojciech Kilar is most famous for his colourful film scores over several decades. Once a member of the New Polish School together with Penderecki and Lutosławski, Kilar was born in the Ukraine but spent most of his career in the southern countryside near Katowice where the folk music inspired many of his pieces which range from symphonies and choral cantatas to song cycles and piano works. He is mostly celebrated for providing scores for Polish directors such as Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, however we know him best from the Hollywood movies The Pianist and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Kilar studied in Darmstadt and also later in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. His short symphonic piece Orawa (1986) was described by Elim Chan as a piece for folk band and evocative of a jolly night in a tavern. The composer was inspired by the rich folk songs of the Podhale region in the foothills of the Tatra mountains. Written for strings, there are versions for string quartet, twelve saxophones, and for cellos and accordion trio. The piece opened with a plaintive violin solo by Lena Zeliszewska which morphed into a bright and playful harmony as the other strings joined in and there soon developed a stringent propulsive rhythmic pulse with dark tensions coming from the basses. The simple idea became motorically dynamic; violins continue to develop the folk melody and it ends with a sudden closing cry from the musicians.

It is not so long ago that Benjamin Grosvenor and Chan played the First Piano Concerto prior to recording both Chopin concertos for Decca last year. In the pre-concert interview, Grosvenor said that despite several recent performances together ‘this evening would be different and there would be a spontaneous flexibility’, pointing out that he and Chan ‘have a strong feeling with each other which is natural and easy in their music-making.’ The Allegro maestoso’s heroic romanticism in the prolonged opening by the orchestra was beautifully shaped by Chan (conducting without a baton) and there were colourful woodwind contributions from the flute of Anthony Robb and the oboe of Adrian Wilson. Grosvenor’s opening chords were majestic and eloquent and there was never the impression that he had played this before – so fresh was the playing. It was sparkling and charming with marvellous ornamentation in the slow movement Larghetto. The E major Rondo – Vivace was superbly performed with the orchestra showing themselves on top form with glittering woodwind and gorgeous brass playing bringing the piece to a brilliant finale. In this performance the piano was placed centrally with Grosvenor’s back to the woodwind and looking straight at the conductor which offered an unusual placing for listening to the clarinet and bassoon in important passages. With the orchestra spread out across the extended platform there seemed to be a lack of atmosphere in such a huge empty hall. However, this didn’t affect the wonderful empathy between soloist, conductor and orchestra – one looks forward to more collaborations in future seasons.

Elim Chan conducts Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) and the RSNO

In the Concerto for Orchestra by Lutosławski, the opening Intrada: Allegro maestoso was dramatically arresting with the brass standing high up in the stalls above the orchestra giving prominence to their clarion calls. The woodwind section was lively, and the anxiety emerged through the orchestra as if marking a great tragedy. The tension quickly subsided, and we heard a colourful passage on the celeste by Michael Bawtree assisted by charming solos from Henry Clay’s cor anglais and Wilson’s oboe that created almost a dream-like atmosphere. The scintillating second movement, Capriccio notturno ed arioso: Vivace opened with soft playing ably directed by Chan, here the magical woodwind was positive and chirpy backed by the orchestral piano and two xylophones. Quickly Chan moved into a stormy passage of almost motoric pace where the brass was somewhat muted while the large percussion group brought a sombre tone leading to a quiet passage heard on the strings. In the third movement: Passacaglia: Toccata e Corale: Andante con moto – Allegro giusto, the harps, cor anglais and the brass brought a sudden dramatic change with drama and dissonance building a momentum leading to a brief climax prior to descending to a reflective quiet passage. This almost died away before suddenly the resplendent brass entered again with superb intonation on the trombones leading the procession to a glitteringly cataclysmic finale.

This was a sensational performance, although one can easily see why Lutosławski’s piece is not often played owing to the complex structures. Certainly, Elim Chan proved that she can easily handle such large forces in challenging repertoire.

Gregor Tassie

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