Sharon Roffman directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a concert of revelatory music-making

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Fennessy: Steven Osborne (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Sharon Roffman (leader/director). Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 5.2.2022. (GT)

Steven Osborne (piano) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (c) RSNO

David FennessyHirta Rounds

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op.58; Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Op.60

We have suffered six weeks of silence in our concert halls, so it was especially welcoming to see a near capacity audience for this opener to the Spring/Summer Royal Scottish National Orchestra series in a programme of new and more familiar music. Among the positive aspects of this orchestra’s concert streaming last year were the performances of little-known composers – David Fennessy’s orchestral piece Hirta Rounds is based on the ancient dances of St Kilda as heard in the sound picture of cold wintry winds from the Atlantic Ocean.

Here the Irish composer explains the background to his writing the work: ‘In 2015 the Munich Chamber Orchestra invited me to compose a new concert piece for strings, with the stipulation that it be unconducted. This aspect was a crucial key in the conception of the entire piece, and it led me to think about how I could write chamber music for 16 individual players. Splitting the strings into smaller groups opened up the possibility of many different fluctuations in tempo occurring simultaneously and what has resulted is at once some of the most simple yet complex music I have composed thus far. The title refers to the remote island of Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago, off the Atlantic coast of Scotland. For centuries a small community thrived there. However, in 1930 they were finally forced to evacuate. Today, only the shells of their stone houses remain on this otherwise barren rock in the middle of the ocean, and one can almost sense the traces of a once-vibrant society.’

Sharon Roffman directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (c) RSNO

Throughout the evening, the orchestra were mostly standing offering a novel music-making experiment (the only seating was for cellists and double bass players). The softly expressed idea from RSNO joint-leader Sharon Roffman’s violin was picked up by the strings and after a pause, a new theme emerged from the cello of Betsy Taylor creating a lonely yet mournful mood and slowly the orchestra joined in a threnody of sadness and despair. The mood was distressing in the virtually wailing sounds expressed in the high notes on the violins, and of strains evoking the sound of seagulls crying out in the wind, then suddenly the music stopped bringing this atmospheric piece to a close. This performance was part of the Scotch Snaps series of modern works and supported by the John Ellerman Foundation and the Fidelio Charitable Trust.

In her introduction, Roffman spoke of the common element of dialogue shared by the works in the evening’s programme. The concert picks up on what we lost during the first stages of Covid-19 and continues the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The Fourth Piano Concerto most of all has the aspects of ‘dialogue’ in which the piano’s opening idea is picked up by the strings, wind, brass and timpani. In the opening section of the first movement (Allegro moderato) the oboe of Adrian Wilson, and the flute of Katherine Bryan were particularly prominent in bringing colour and harmony. The Scottish pianist Steven Osborne has built his musical career eschewing the glitter of the music world by bringing an almost cerebral presence to his music-making combining profound understanding with a lofty technical brilliance. While in the earlier Beethoven concertos, he plays his own cadenzas, here he prefers Beethoven’s own ones bringing out all the beauty and imposing thought of the composer. In the slow movement (Andante con moto) the mood was dark and threatening, empathised by a profound idea expressed by Osborne that embraced sadness and almost entreating in its extended discourse with the orchestra. While in the finale (Rondo vivace) the mood quickly switched to an upbeat idea with exciting rhythmic phrases shared throughout the orchestra and ending in great triumph. As an encore, we heard Osborne own improvisation on a theme by Keith Jarrett.

It was just a few seasons ago that the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in an unusual arrangement standing around the conductor Sir Roger Norrington in what proved an extraordinary and memorable event. During the lockdown series of digital streaming, the RSNO reprised the idea for several pieces including for their Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In her role of directing from the first desk – throughout the first two pieces – it seemed as if Roffman has been doing this all her life. (Certainly, back in December we witnessed Nicola Benedetti equally as astonishing in the role of leader/director when she directed the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in an astonishing revelatory performance.)

Here, under Roffman’s guidance, in the opening movement (Adagio – Allegro vivace) the music emerged as if rising from the depths – in playing of mysterious harmony – there was superb intonation from Bryan on flute and Adrian Wilson on oboe supported notably with fine playing from the double basses. In the Allegro vivace section, the tempo developed, and with fine playing from David Hubbard on bassoon – the overwhelming feeling was as if the sun’s rays had emerged from under a cloud. The sense of shared wellbeing was evident with smiles on some of the faces of the musicians. Throughout, Roffman led by her eyes, and her deft and slight body movements realised the ever so slight switches in musical expression. In the second movement (Adagio) the tempo gained an exciting dynamic edge while in the second theme following the pianissimo we heard an outstanding dream-like solo from the clarinet of Lewis Graham. This was enhanced by wondrously fine phrasing from the strings, notably from the violas. In the third movement (Scherzo-trio: Allegro vivace) one sensed that we were listening to the finest Beethoven heard here for many years, especially in the songful harmony in the trio that was intensified in playing of great luminosity and warmth. In the finale (Allegro ma non troppo) we witnessed magical virtuoso performances from each department of the orchestra, bringing this extraordinary concert to a joyous and brilliant close.

The RSNO has been consistently outstanding in modern repertoire – on this evening – their playing and interpretation of Beethoven was truly world-class. At the end, it was a lovely gesture for Roffman to gesture to her colleagues so that they approached the front of the stage and took their bow together to acknowledge the tremendous wave of applause from the near capacity audience.

In last year’s Autumn/Winter season, the orchestra management had to suddenly find replacements when their booked conductors cancelled through illness, however, it is clear now that the RSNO has a brilliant and multi-talented leader in Sharon Roffman who possesses remarkable conducting talent. In all, this was a terrific and revelatory concert by the RSNO, and one can only enthuse at the coming months of the orchestra’s forthcoming Spring/Summer season of concerts.

Gregor Tassie

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