John Wilson conjures up an evening of late romanticism and jazz inflected musical classics

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gershwin, Ravel, Rachmaninov: Louis Schwizgebel (pianist), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / John Wilson (conductor). Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 21.5.2022. (GT)

John Wilson

RavelValses nobles et sentimentales
Gershwin – Concerto in F
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.3 in A major, Op.44

This Royal Scottish National Orchestra concert offered an entertaining mix of brilliantly orchestrated music in reverence of the waltz, the charmed syncopations of the blues, to the rich Slavic late romanticism from the twentieth-century. On this evening the stage of the Royal Concert Hall was lowered by four feet to the level of the audience which marginally altered the acoustics while extending the area for the large orchestra. At first, it was difficult to get used to, however the splendid performance allowed adjustment to this innovation. Following an entertaining introduction by John Wilson, the opening dance, (Modéré, tres franc), opened joyously on the percussion and woodwind, and attractively harmonious in the woodwind, notably from Katherine Bryan on the flute, and by Peter Dykes’s oboe of a somewhat child-like naïve idea, (Assez lente). Yet then there were delightful sequences in deference to the Viennese waltz, to Schubert, and to jazz blues, showing off the orchestra’s class in all its glory. John Wilson typifies the English style of conducting, clear and accurate without over expression or emotional involvement.

Louis Schwizgebel (c) Marco Borrgreve

In the Gershwin Concerto, the percussion opened with an explosion of lively colour, leading to beautiful syncopating rhythms, flowing melodies on clarinet of Jonathan Parker to the stirring, graceful, solo passage by Louis Schwizgebel on the keyboard. It was clear how much jazz is enjoyed by this orchestra with virtuosic playing from trombones and trumpets, and perhaps the highlight of this performance was the glorious solo contribution from the trumpet of Christopher Hart. The second movement (Adagio) opened melodiously on the horn of Andrew McLean, and once we heard Hart’s muted trumpet, with the theme picked up by the clarinet of Parker and the oboe of Dykes. The momentum continued with a gorgeous passage on the keyboard and this was fantastic playing by the young Swiss pianist, an artist that I have not heard before. It is clear that he is an outstanding pianist who listens to the orchestra and is quite extraordinary. Following a graceful solo violin passage from Emily Davis, the slow movement ended with an intriguing cadenza from Schwizgebel. The finale (Allegro agitato) exploded tremendously, with equally magnificent playing on the piano, accompanied by delightful strings, once more we heard the magnificent trumpet of Hart, and particularly the tuba of John Whitener, bringing a great end to this fine work. As an encore the pianist played a charming Jazz Etude by Erwin Schulhoff.

Composed in a period when Rachmaninov was criss-crossing the world touring, his Third Symphony comes from a period when he was ever more homesick for his homeland, and this work has as its motto theme, the Requiem for the Latin mass, the Dies irae, which appears in several of his most celebrated works. Completed on the shores of Lake Geneva, Rachmaninov’s final symphony has never won the popularity of the Second perhaps because of its darkness and overbearing nostalgia, however it contains some of his finest music.

In the opening movement (Lento) the Dies irae leitmotif was heard in three shortly held chords from the clarinets, cellos and muted horns before settling on a long drawn out melody which invoked imagery of a curtain opening on a Russian landscape with clouds moving quickly across the sky. The second idea heard on the cellos was broad and noble and hinting of a Russian Cossack wedding song which developed into a brisk march before a rather penchant nostalgic idea emerged with an ostinato rhythm on the woodwind. The voice of fate when heard on the trombones and tuba was now deeply tragic, yet quickly switched into an elegiac idiom, before a pizzicato passage on the strings – the ominous Dies irae closed out the movement. In the (Adagio) the horn was heard against the harps intoning the motto, before Emily Davis on the solo violin fashioned a beautiful passage which was picked up by Bryan on the flute, playing above the divided strings, and picked up by the woodwind, and the whole orchestra in a beautiful cantilena passage. In the middle section, there appeared a sequence of wild imagery from Russian folk lore with intonations of church bell tones before we heard once more the fateful Dies irae theme. The finale (Allegro) started on a brisk tempo fully of energy – as if we were part of wild dance at a Russian festive occasion – and then interrupted by a more lyrical theme, yet the idiom broken by the return of the fate theme (expressed by the bassoon of David Hubbard) then conquered the whole orchestra in a darkly tragic orchestral colour. Waves rose and fell in the strings slowly rising to a huge culmination as the contrasting festive dance clashed with the lyrical theme culminated in a fugato on the motto theme of the Latin catholic mass.

This was a splendid concert showing the orchestra on top form and hopefully these two artists will return to Scotland in the near future.

Gregor Tassie

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