Michael Schønwandt conducts a superbly colourful Scheherazade in Glasgow – Seen and Heard International


United KingdomUnited KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, R. Strauss: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Michael Schønwandt (conductor). Royal Concert Hall, 13.11.2021. (GT)

Michael Schønwandt (c) Martin Mydtskov Rønne

R. Strauss – Tod und Verklärung, Op.24 (Death and Transfiguration)

Ravel – Piano Concerto in D major for Left Hand

Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Op.35

In their Autumn/Winter concert series, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has mixed a selection of lesser-known pieces with orchestral favourites that have been a permanent fixture of symphony concerts worldwide. In making the switch from streaming concerts of last season (which reached more audiences globally), the planners have carefully chosen programmes which have something for everyone while exhibiting the orchestra’s finest qualities. The three composers on this evening would hardly seem to have any connection, however, there are common factors; both Richard Strauss and Ravel wrote pieces commissioned by the disabled pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and Rimsky-Korsakov hugely influenced Ravel when he conducted his own music in Paris in 1904.

Strauss’s music is rarely missing from concert programmes, and his symphonic poem Death and Transfiguration contains some of his most attractive music and shows why it was so well received in Germany when it was premiered with melodramatic verses by Alexander Ritter.

In the opening bars, there unfolded a picture of life’s struggles – sounding as if rising from a dark abyss – unhurriedly developed by the strings and woodwind and timpani in a minor key, with the violins introducing some intensity (fortissimo) which was enhanced by the harmony of Katherine Bryan’s flute and accentuated by Timothy Orpen’s clarinet and Reiner Gibbons’s oboe in reflecting happier days of youth. This delightful swathe of sound was dramatically interrupted by the timpani – and the entry of death – on the major key and in a passionate furioso passage. As life ebbed away, a secondary idea emerged from the woodwind and harp. The horn of Andrew McLean introduced an idiom of enlightenment heralding a golden harmony accompanied by the trombones and reverberating in the strings with both harps leading to a beautiful culmination.

Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is one of two pieces (the other being the Piano Concerto No.4 by Prokofiev) written for the disabled pianist Paul Wittgenstein which enjoy popularity – aside from those rarely heard pieces by Britten, Hindemith, Schmidt, Richard Strauss and Korngold. In the opening lento on the low strings, the initial theme was boldly heard in the brass and explored gloriously by the whole orchestra. There followed a lengthy bravura cadenza by Kirill Gerstein which was picked up gorgeously by the orchestra and when heard on the brass and timpani echoed of the blues. As the lento section yielded to an allegro passage, there appeared a freshly rhythmic idea on the keyboard and together with vivid woodwind became fatefully brusque. The ferociously hard rhythms of the soloist on the piano against wonderfully colourful harmonies on the woodwind and brass rose to a crescendo. Yet another spectacular cadenza from the Russian-born pianist created an intimate child-like simplicity which together with the orchestra magnificently closed this late Ravel masterpiece. The mixture of southern romanticism and modernism were features of the composer’s most popular works; interestingly, next month we will be able to compare this work with the G major Concerto which will be performed. In commemoration of Remembrance Sunday, as an encore, Kirill Gerstein played Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque which was dedicated to the King of Belgium in memory of the many who had lost their lives at the beginning of the Great War.

It is regrettable that we know Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov mostly though a small number of his orchestral pieces, of which Scheherazade is the most well-known – regrettably, we never hear any of his fifteen completed operas – mostly based on fairy-tales – and none of his three symphonies, concertos for the piano, clarinet and trombone, nor many choruses and song arrangements. We can hear in his orchestration the influences of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, and interestingly, his works in turn influenced Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, and Respighi, and at least two generations of Russian composers.

The opening, Largo (The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship) with its darkly imposing brass fortissimo portraying the despotic Sultan, contrasted with the leitmotif of Scheherazade magnificently realised by the violin of RSNO’s leader Maya Iwabuchi and the gentle accompaniment of Pippa Tunnell’s harp. The Story of the Kalendar Prince (Lento) is a set of variations with Scheherazade narrating the romantic story of Sinbad the Sailor, assisted by lithe violins playing a wonderfully colourful idea based on the composer’s exotic eastern melodies. Threats from the Sultan emerged again from the brass – with an interflow between the contrasting ideas – allowing us to hear virtuosity from the woodwind and brass. The Young Prince and The Young Princess, followed the theme of the preceding movement with exquisite string playing, gorgeously romantic mellifluous woodwind playing especially from David Hubbard’s bassoon. The final Allegro movement: Festival at Baghdad. The Sea mixed contrasting themes from the preceding movements with Iwabuchi reprising the beautiful theme of Scheherazade on her violin. Her playing was equalled by virtuosity from Bryan on the flute, with colourful brilliance from the brass – notably from Christopher Hart on trumpet and McLean’s horn. The tempo of the orchestral playing was both stunning and exciting, allowing a tremendous crescendo before the theme of Scheherazade returned before slowly dying away into the beautifully realised close.

The last time that Michael Schønwandt conducted this orchestra was in 1983 and his absence for so long is regretted because he is a very imposing figure constantly gyrating with his arms and body drawing all the drama, as well as allowing full expression, from his musicians. This was an outstanding concert and underlines this orchestra’s virtuosity in every section of the ensemble and marvellously well directed by Schønwandt – hopefully we will see the Danish conductor back on Scottish soil before long.

Gregor Tassie