This must have been a stressful week at RSNO Towers. This concert’s original conductor, Christian Măcelaru, had to withdraw due to illness, and was replaced at fairly short notice by Sergey Neller. Things like this are always a nightmare for arts organisations, but it was made ten times worse when, earlier this week, Neller had to pull out due to “travel complications”. The phones must have been ringing off the hook in order to secure the services of José Luis Gomez, who stepped into the breach with only three days’ notice to a programme that included a world première and a symphony that is hardly core repertoire. To lose one conductor may be considered unfortunate, but to lose two…

José Luis Gomez © Matthieu Gauchet
José Luis Gomez
© Matthieu Gauchet

It’s a credit to everybody involved that they managed to pull it off so successfully and, barring a couple of programme tweaks (the Rachmaninov Vocalise was binned and we got the Third Piano Concerto instead of the First, presumably due to lack of rehearsal time), you’d never have guessed that there had been difficulties. One of the reasons for choosing Gomez must have been that he already knows Shostakovich 12, the composer’s (alleged) tribute to the Russian Revolution whose centenary we marked this week, and he drew a performance of energy, clarity and vigour from the players, who already have a great pedigree in Shostakovich.  The opening string recitative dripped with vibrato, pregnant with expectation, and throughout there was a clear narrative edge to the sound, be it in the bite of the violins in the faster passages or the skirl of the woodwinds as they strained at the leash. Dark brass underpinned the whole structure, and I loved the glorious choir of winds that sang through the Razliv theme while the string section sounded like an Orthodox choir. The violins then had a balletic feel to them as they picked up the main theme of the finale and, if the final moments are undeniably repetitious, they were redeemed by having all the lines clearly audible. David Hurwitz has claimed that claimed that the twelfth symphony is “widely regarded as Shostakovich’s worst”, but when it’s burnished this brightly it’s hard to complain.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is at the opposite end of the popularity stakes, but that carries its own problems in terms of its reputation and its accepted performing style. What impressed me most about this performance is that both conductor and, especially, the young soloist were keen to point up the lighter, lyrical aspects of the concerto rather than the scene-stealing climaxes. Yekwon Sunwoo has just won the Van Cliburn competition, so he carries a lot of potential with him and, based on his performance tonight, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot of him in future. The undulating opening was gentle, almost understated, and that set the tone for a first movement in which Sunwoo was unafraid of going for a genuine pianissimo, not least in the dreamy second subject. This is, after all, a work of light and shade: fireworks came later, most notably at the climax of the development and the outer edges of the finale, but they were more effective because the groundwork had been laid for them so successfully. Throughout, his playing was clean, architectural and brilliantly controlled, and the orchestra responded with lovely tone that was not unlike Shostakovich in its lower strings, but seemed to be channelling the Romanticism of Tchaikovsky in the second movement.

Daniel Kidane has come through the RSNO Composers’ Hub scheme and, while Zulu is a short work, it shows some interesting experimentation with colour. In the opening icy strings contrast with staccato brass, and later jagged pizzicati and subtle use of percussion add a delicate African flavour, suggesting “the formidable fighting spirit of the Zulu people”. Kidane’s sound world is inevitably Western, of course, but I liked the way he refracted it through something “other” so as to give it a different colour, with contrasting sound textures and energy patterns giving it its momentum. There may not have been a lot more to it, but I rather liked the feel of it.

****1