They say time is a great healer. But it hasn’t really done us any favours of late, denying British audiences the opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds of touring orchestras. So thank goodness for Cadogan Hall, hosting another excellent series of visiting orchestras, starting with the Seoul Philharmonic, making its first visit to the UK for eight years under outgoing Music Director Osmo Vänskä. But Vänskä in Lahti or Minnesota is not quite the same as Vänskä in Seoul, as he prepares to step down after only three years at the helm – unusual for a conductor who usually enjoys long tenures. There may be more to this.

Sunwook Kim, Osmo Vänskä and the Seoul Philharmonic
© Taeuk Kang from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

With shameless affront, Vänskä opened with the swashbuckling romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. This feature-length opener was blessed by the presence of the brilliant Korean pianist Sunwook Kim, whose bright tone and effervescence was front and centre. There was nuance too, Kim showing subtlety and intimacy and being quite hypnotic in the piano solos. The highlights were perhaps in the slow movement, with Kim’s blistering cascades and the marvellous transition from delicate piano to beautiful cello solo. Vänskä’s keen eye for precision and shape was evident, but although the orchestra displayed sharpness and accommodated Vänskä’s phrasing demands well, it sometimes felt a little flat in support of Kim’s dynamism and not always fully committed. 

Sunwook Kim
© Taeuk Kang from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

Nevertheless, with buckles duly swashed, the second half showed the orchestra in much more dominant and extrovert mood. Korean composer Unsuk Chin enjoys a close relationship with the Seoul Philharmonic, and this concert saw her 2019 work, Frontispiece, given its UK premiere. Chin describes the work as “a time lapse of a kind of the history of music”, giving hints or allusions to different composers’ styles rather than direct quotations. It proved to be a unique and rather engaging kaleidoscope of fluctuating textures, tonal and atonal, unfolding every few moments into fresh territory. Ghostly glissandi turned into clockwork; faint wisps turned into violent outbursts; static, other-worldly tones turned into nervous energy. And all this was wrapped into a richly rewarding eight minutes of concise expressiveness, predominantly inspired by Webern’s “universe in a nutshell”, and played superbly.

And then it was back to another Russian favourite, Stravinsky’s 1919 Suite from The Firebird. This saw the orchestra in sparkling form, sparkling but not exceptional. But there was certainly much to enjoy. The evocation of mystery in the opening was absorbing, and Vänskä’s subtle touch provided cohesion, tension and momentum throughout. The warmth and tenderness of The Princesses’ Khorovod was as delectable as the Infernal Dance was brutal, its rhythmic tensions sharp and vibrant, and contrasting with the intense and plaintive Berceuse. I did feel there was more in the tank from this wonderful orchestra, who can clearly give powerful performances – maybe a symptom of coming to the end of a brief but busy tour – but the triumphant Finale ensured that endorphin levels were sufficiently raised before walking out into the night air.

(As a postscript, our best wishes for a speedy recovery go to the member of the violin section who unfortunately took ill during the performance and had to seek medical attention. We wish her well.)