United Kingdom Brahms, Sibelius, Anna Thorvaldóttir, Wagner: Sunwook Kim (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Jonathan Stockhammer (conductor). Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 27.11.2021. (GT)
Wagner – Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Anna Thorvaldsdóttir – Metacosmos
Sibelius – Tapiola, Op.112
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
This interesting concert programme mixes composers from opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet the elements of fantasy and nature unites them all. Thankfully, following the cancellation of Eva Ollikainen as the conductor, we had the American conductor Jonathan Stockhammer to take on this full and challenging programme. I can recall, when under Sir Alexander Gibson, this orchestra worked as the pit band for Scottish Opera in a notable 1971 Ring cycle here in Glasgow. More recently, they were resplendent in performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung at the Edinburgh International Festival. So, it was tangible that we heard a memory of their tremendous Wagnerian playing in the opening passage of the Lohengrin Act I prelude on the violins, the sound was quite heavenly followed by fine solos from the oboe and flute, and there was glowing harmony from the brass before the opening idea returned to the violins bringing it to a mellifluous close.
I first heard the music of Anna Thorvalsdóttir in February 2020 when the Iceland Symphony Orchestra visited Edinburgh as part of their UK debut tour. On that occasion, her compositional style in Aeriality hugely impressed me particularly through her masterly orchestral technique and ability to create an almost magical atmosphere. After which the premiere of Catamorphosis by the Berlin Philharmonic in January this year underscored her prowess as one of the leading modernist composers today.
Metacosmos was premiered in the United States in 2018, and as Thorvaldóttir describes: ‘Metacosmos is constructed around the natural balance between beauty and chaos – how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structured whole. The idea and inspiration behind the piece, which is connected as much to the human experience as to the universe, is the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole – the unknown – with endless constellations and layers of opposing forces connecting and communicating with each other, expanding, and contracting, projecting a struggle for power as the different sources pull on you and you realise that you are being drawn into a force that is beyond your control. As with my music generally, the inspiration behind Metacosmos is not something I am trying to describe through the piece – to me, the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical. When I am inspired by a particular element or quality, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting, and the qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two – the details and the unity of the whole’.
The opening on the low strings was as if we were listening to the roaring depths of the universe and then suddenly we heard a mysterious idea on the violins, picked up by the brass, and the wind with a scary idea from the low strings and the brass roared – as if a great beast was awakening from a deep sleep – in another passage we heard a wailing from the violins as if a great sadness reigned. This heralded a daring idea on the three grand casa (drums) rising to a great crescendo like a roar of nature; there was a noble idea from the cellos – like an ancient tribal song – which slowly came to a lyrical close on the strings and notably from Sharon Roffman’s graceful solo violin.
Programming Thorvaldóttir’s piece with a work by another Nordic composer was wholly appropriate and markedly by contrasting music written a century apart. Tapiola was Sibelius’s last work – despite the composer living on for another twenty years – and it reflects on his affinity with nature as does that of the Icelandic composer. The opening Largamente, was like entering into a dark forest landscape in the depths of Finland. This affinity with nature was tangible in the opening phrasing by the strings, and Adrian Wilson on the oboe shaped a stirring idea, matched by a feeling of mystery on the flute of Anthony Robb, and there arrived a moment of melancholia as if the composer found he had little more to say. There were flashes from the earlier symphonies and a strange idea emerged in the woodwind bustling like wildlife scurrying in the forest, yet there came dissonance on the low brass, and a myriad of themes as if we were listening to the wind blowing through the trees before the music came to an enigmatic close.
Sunwook Kim is the winner of the 2006 Leeds International Piano Competition and proved a terrific soloist in the Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto in March 2020 here just before the first lockdown, and accordingly this evening was eagerly awaited. The opening of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto on fortissimo chords is among the most dramatic and exciting in the concerto repertoire, ‘brilliant and decisive’ was how the composer called it in a letter to Joseph Joachim. First envisioned as a symphony for piano, we know that the orchestral opening was an evocation of his friend Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide. In the opening Maestoso, it was clear how well this orchestra is playing now; the strings, wind, and percussion were terrific. The heroic element continued in magical keyboard playing from Kim, and more gripping hard rhythms conjured some terrifically impassioned playing with the interplay between orchestra and soloist creating majesty and lyricism.
The heart of this performance was in the Korean’s deeply moving playing In the Adagio, as the ternary form was dominated with the two bassoons leading the theme – that Brahms inscribed as ‘Benedictus, qui venit, in nominee Domini’ in his sketches – to develop. Kim’s transfixingly beautiful theme was complemented by the French horn of Christopher Gough, leading to gorgeous passages by Kim – some of the most transcendental playing heard here for some time. In the Rondo: Allegro non troppo the drama continued with superbly dazzling keyboard playing; robustly supported by the American conductor – as the Korean soloist switched majestically from the D minor to D major – the orchestra ploughed on to a splendid climax. The culmination to this great concerto was a worthy close to a concert which yet again presented this orchestra in world-class form. Credit must be given to the RSNO Assistant conductor Kellen Gray who helped prepare this concert when the contracted conductor cancelled due to COVID-19.
In concluding, special mention must be made of Jonathan Stockhammer who took over this concert with four days’ notice and displayed outstanding conducting gifts in mastering such a challenging programme. Based in Los Angeles, he has worked in diverse genres both in Europe and the Far East, and based on his performance, it will surely not be long before we see him once again in Scotland.