Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Keith Bruce
four stars
THE withdrawal of pianist and composer Fazil Say from his debut with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, unconnected to the current health crisis as far as I am aware, meant some remodelling of the orchestra’s programme, and more specifically it occasioned the return of South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim, three years on from his last appearance with the RSNO.
Even a slightly ragged opening to Beethoven’s Emperor concerto on the part of conductor Thomas Sondergard and the orchestra did not put the returning hero off his stride. Sondergard took a very historically-informed approach to the work, somewhat austere, and definitely vibrato-free, but Sunwook Kim is a player who knows how to drive a Steinway, and there was never really any doubt whose show this was to be in the concert’s second half. The precision phrasing of the slow second movement, on which he was beautifully supported by the RSNO strings, was a particular delight, when the conductor and players appeared to be hanging on every note as much as the audience.
Sondergard had signalled his approach in the opening performance of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which was perhaps a little slower than it is often heard, and had a particular spacious drama. For the RSNO Chorus’s involvement, after radical stage re-setting, the deployment of the forces on the platform was at first much less comfortable. Stravinsky’s Symphony of the Psalms, with the concert grands of Lynda Cochrane and Judith Keaney occupying the space vacated by the violins in its distinctive instrumental scoring, took a while to find a good balance, with the singers struggling to command attention.
By the Alleluia opening of the setting of Psalm 150, the longest section of the work, Sondergard had everything happily in shape, even if the impression remained that this repertoire is perhaps not this choir’s strongest suit. What was abundantly clear in that last movement, however, was how much of its sound-world was later borrowed by Leonard Bernstein for more commercial fare.