It’s a bit out of fashion to describe a concerto as a duel: the days of the flashy virtuoso are now almost gone, and you’re much more likely to see a soloist working with, rather than against, an orchestra. Nevertheless, something particularly magical happens when the concerto soloist is drawn from the ranks of the orchestra. In such a case, the orchestra is supporting one of their own, and there’s a wonderfully convivial atmosphere to the whole enterprise, so that self-regarding virtuosity never really features. Scottish orchestras are particularly good at this: I’ve had many wonderful evenings like that with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and so I wasn’t at all surprised at how much I enjoyed this performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto starring RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi.

Maya Iwabuchi
© RSNO

Throughout, Iwabuchi looked at the orchestra as much as at the conductor, showcasing that essence of communication, and you could hear it in the to-and-fro of the performance, too. Barber’s is one of the least assertive of the great violin concertos, at least in its first two movements: instead of showmanship you get cooperation and warmth of expression, and Iwabuchi wasn’t afraid to embrace the touch of Hollywood that the music contains. It sounded all the better for that, and she leaned right into the treacly long lines of the slow movement which sounded both gorgeous and highly calorific before a moto perpetuo finale that was decisive and crisply articulated.

The orchestra, looking and sounding like a chamber band, were supportive colleagues who played with understated beauty, including a perky clarinet for the first movement’s second theme, and a beautifully long-breathed oboe at the opening of the slow movement. Conductor Angus Webster made a series of debuts with this concert: it was his first time conducting the RSNO, and the first time conducting all three works. He did a good job with this concerto, balancing well the influences on Barber from both sides of the Atlantic, and factoring in just the right amount of schmaltz to make the piece work. Add in orchestral string tone that acted like a warm embrace soloist, and you had something that was rather lovely.

It was certainly more interesting than Craig Armstrong’s St Kilda pieces. Written for string orchestra and harp, they’re atmospheric tone pictures filled with icy harmonies and glassy harmonics; but they’re static to the point of catatonia and there just wasn’t much going on.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony has a lot going on, of course, but it’s a brave choice for any conductor at the beginning of his career. Its famously knotty structure confounds conductors who have been at it for decades, and Webster didn’t quite seem ready yet to stamp his mark on it, often giving the impression of letting the orchestra get on with it. Happily, the orchestra seemed to know what they were doing, with rich string tone and attentive winds and brass that punctuated the texture. If the reading as a whole was rather vanilla, then it’s an impressive feat that Webster conducted it from memory, and no doubt it will mature into something remarkable with a bit more experience.


This performance was reviewed from the RSNO video stream

***11