Michael Schønwandt can’t quite qualify as a regular visitor to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The last time the Danish conductor stood in front of them was in 1983, so I doubt he recognised any familiar faces among the performers he directed in this concert. Which makes his rapport with them all the more striking: at the end, the pantomime over who should take the bows was even more pronounced than usual. More importantly, however, his musical empathy with the orchestra was palpable, and he seemed to know instinctively how to get the best out of them.

Michael Schønwandt
© RSNO

In Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung the orchestra had a tremendous sense of richness at the bottom of the sound, the opening immense and slightly forbidding. Later, the brass climaxes crackled with tension and excitement, and the wind solos sang out beautifully. Most notably, however, Schønwandt demonstrated a masterly manner of controlling Strauss’ huge, unfolding paragraphs. Individual climaxes were managed to perfection while the whole argument moved steadily forwards to its denouement. Only the work’s final pages sounded a little unconvincing. After a stirring gong procession to mark the moment of death, the soul’s assumption into the empyrean sounded a little monochrome and steady. I’m not sure I’d want my transfiguration to sound like that. 

There was a similar problem in the first movement of Scheherezade. The RSNO sounded rich and full, with a darkly threatening opening, and Scheherezade’s solos were played with delicacy and panache by leader Maya Iwabuchi. The sea scene felt rushed, though. Schønwandt pushed things on too quickly so that there was no time to marvel at the majesty and, more worryingly, the notes were rushed and regularly out of sync. However, the Festival at Baghdad was more focused, the Kalender Prince had bite, and the strings sounded so rich in the love music that they touched on decadence.

Seeing a star pianist like Kirill Gerstein on the Usher Hall stage is as clear not only that we’re getting back to musical normality, but that international travel is a heck of a lot easier. Yet still we needed only 50% of him for Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand. His technique is rock solid, so much so that it can be taken for granted. However, the nonchalance and Gallic élan that he brought to his performance felt as though he was playing with one eyebrow permanently raised, like it was all too easy. I loved his syncopations in the central march and his glittering fingerwork in the treble clef that balanced the frequent journeys to the bottom of the keyboard. The orchestra matched him with an opening that seemed to crawl out of the primordial soup yet still managed to glitter brightly in the first tutti, and the final march was a propulsive Danse macabre of ghoulish humour.

Gerstein’s encore threatened to upstage the concerto, though. His playing of Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque was sombre and guarded, yet quietly powerful. What stuck with me, though, was the thoughtfulness of the choice and the way he introduced it. Performing one day after the Armistice commemorations, Gerstein picked the piece because it was written in 1914 and sold to raise funds for the victims of Germany’s invasion of Belgium. Furthermore, 1914 was the year in which the Usher Hall was inaugurated. Gerstein had done his homework. Very stylish.

****1