Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony brings the RSNO season to a glorious finale

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Capperauld, Liddell: Katherine Bryan (flute), Finlay MacDonald (bagpipes), Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Stephanie Maitland (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Božidar Smiljanić (bass-baritone), Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 4.6.2022. (GT)

Thomas Søndergård conducts the RSNO (c) James Montgomery

Beethoven – Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43; Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op.125 ‘Choral’
LiddellDiu Regnare
Jay CapperauldOur Gilded Veins (world premiere)

To end the Spring/Summer season with the greatest symphony ever written was indeed most fitting as this concert brought to a close a series whereby this orchestra has reached new heights in both standards of performance and a more explorative repertoire. The evening opened with Stuart Liddell’s Diu Regnare – a piece for bagpipes written in 2020 to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee. Playing in the centre of the choir stalls high above the orchestra, the noble and rather grand music from Finlay MacDonald’s bagpipes was a fine way to start this final event of the season.

Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus was then given a fine performance in which the strings and woodwind showed excellent form, opening on a rather enigmatic phrase yet which heralds both courage and humanity from the composer’s only completed ballet score. Written at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was curious to couple this brief piece with the mighty ‘Choral’ Symphony composed towards the end of his career, but nevertheless allowing a unique view of the composer’s creativity.

Throughout this last season, the orchestra have regularly premiered newly written pieces by contemporary composers, some of these have been revelatory, while others offered brief glimpses of the composer’s talents heard as openers for the evening’s programme. However, now we heard a more extended work by a fine young Scottish composer Jay Capperauld (b.1989). He gives the background to his new work here: ‘Our Gilded Veins is inspired by the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, the mending of broken objects in order not only to repair them but to highlight their previous damage in a special and positive way. If a plate is broken, instead of throwing it away it is glued together with gilded lacquer to emphasise and celebrate the break as part of the object’s history. Essentially, as a human concept, Our Gilded Veins is an honest reflection on damage, failure and scars, with the intention of embracing the necessity of life’s negatives while attempting to forge a positive existential outcome.’

Katherine Bryan

The work was written for the RSNO principal flute Katherine Bryan who in her pre-concert interview explained that the idea for the concerto came from a brief piece written for her by Capperauld during lockdown and which served as the kernel from which this new work grew. The RSNO commissioned it with support from the John Ellerman Foundation, the John Mather Trust for Rising Stars, and the Fidelio Charity Trust.

The piece deals with the problems of mental health and overcoming stigma in society and points to the healing force of music in overcoming illness. The composer said in an interview that the concerto ‘as a narrative starts in darkness and leads to light, as if my own ode to joy’. Certainly, Capperauld has enjoyed success following his graduation from the Royal Scottish Conservatoire where he studied with Gordon MacPherson, and uniquely shares common roots with one of Scotland’s famous composers – Sir James MacMillan coming from a working class family in Cumnock, Ayrshire. His compositions have been performed all over the UK and he has written several pieces for large orchestra.

The work opened on a great tutti chord before descending into a chaotic passage with each section as if playing independently of each other. With the flute singing a beguiling idea against cello accompaniment, and then the murmuring strings, its intonations flew high into the air as if portraying a mystical brighter harmony, interrupted by a dynamic orchestral passage with a theme somewhat evocative of Leonard Bernstein, and a rhythmic rocking idea. This sequence was followed by beautiful virtuosic flute playing by Bryan, conflicting with a motoric idea on the percussion and wind sections, while the flute began increasing the intensity – almost like a bird released from its cage finding its freedom flying higher and higher – as if harmonious enlightenment was rising to a great climax with chimes from the bells. The flute then introduced a lyrical phrase against shimmering strings and against the harmonies of the xylophone playing in a meditative idiom, and then ending with a divine and prolonged soft note spellbindingly closing this wonderful music. This is among the finest new pieces written by a Scottish composer in recent years – it will surely enter the repertoire of not only this orchestra but many other ensembles in coming years, and proved a wonderful showcase for the RSNO’s world class Katherine Bryan.

In the great ‘Choral’ Symphony, Thomas Søndergård opened the grandiose Allegro – in a passage of marvellous playing by the strings – with a theme as if struggling against the powers of fate yet bearing within an anticipation of happiness. In the second movement (Molto vivace) the anticipation rose, slowly building to a wild demonism – in which fate was thrashing out mankind’s struggles – and the momentum highlighted by a stunning contribution from Paul Philbert on the timpani, while in the Adagio, we entered a different world,  with the B-flat major theme expressing calm, and here I was impressed again by outstanding playing by the strings: I cannot remember the orchestra’s violins (led here by Sharon Roffman), playing so well. The almost child-like secondary theme brought hope, yet in the urgent fortissimo of the finale, the mood changed as the theme of struggle arrived on the basses, before slowly but surely, the theme of hope and humanity emerged from the woodwind, with notably fine playing from Harry Winstanley on the flute, Timothy Orpen on clarinet, and David Hubbard on bassoon, and in which the oboe of Adrian Wilson introduced a fresh idea bearing assurance in deliverance. The voice of British-born bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić superbly expressed the full force of Beethoven’s words ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ (‘O friends, no more of these sounds!’), and the arriving voices of the chorus were magisterial advancing to the blissful solo section and the exhilarating coda. It was welcoming to have as the quartet of singers a group of homegrown talents all born and educated here. This in particular was a very fine performance by Thomas Søndergård and further evidence that in the years in which he has been in charge, the RSNO’s musical performance has increased momentously.

Gregor Tassie

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