I’ll always remember Sunwook Kim’s first visit to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra because it was their final concert before lockdown. In fact, he came to their rescue because the previously booked pianist had cancelled in what now seems like a wise decision not to travel, so Kim stepped in to play Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. I remember at the time thinking it one of the sweetest performances of the work I’d ever heard, though I recognised even then that this could have been, in large part, down to the fear that live performance was about to be taken away. We all know what happened next.

Sunwook Kim
© Marco Borggreve

All of that made it lovely to see Sunwook Kim back sharing the stage with the orchestra, and his playing of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto makes me wonder whether I was being too harsh in giving the credit elsewhere for that Beethoven. He’s a born dramatist, and I enjoyed the way he hurled himself into the contrasts of Brahms’ concerto, playing up to the strident Sturm und Drang and then gently milking the lyricism of moments like the first movement’s gentle second theme. He’s also very keen on rubato, and he used it frequently, but mostly discretely, all the while listening to the orchestra and turning the concerto into a dialogue. He ambled beautifully, almost rhapsodically through the slow movement and, if he tired a little by the finale, he still managed to keep something in reserve for the final turn to D major, and the final bars had a pleasing sense of journey’s end.

The orchestra seemed to swap places with him in terms of musical argument. Their opening was less forthright than I’d been expecting, even if the strings sounded gorgeous in that second theme, but in the finale the orchestra became the real source of sparkle, led in an upbeat reading by conductor Jonathan Stockhammer, a late replacement who came in at very short notice for Eva Ollikainen. It’s hard to be much more than functional when you’re parachuted in, but Stockhammer’s take on the concerto was never less than satisfactory, and he was helped by playing that was as balanced as it was rich.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Sally Jubb

The three pieces in the concert’s first half were planned as a set by Ollikainen, but I’m really glad that Stockhammer was able to keep them as a triptych because they formed a fascinating study in similarity and difference. The shimmering light of the Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude might not seem like a natural companion for the forested darkness of Tapiola, let alone the shifting tectonics of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos. However, all three are studies in moving while standing still, and they made great companion pieces, each one taking part in a powerful forward flow while seeming never to move at all. Stockhammer deserves credit for making the three pieces gel, but the RSNO matched him with playing that was rich yet delicate so that even in the vast colour blocks of Metacosmos, you could still hear through the middle, making it, in some ways, as transparent as Lohengrin