Music review: The RSNO & Yekwon Sunwoo, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra
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For a variety of reasons, Saturday’s RSNO Remembrance programme looked very different from the original published plans. Out went Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1, to be replaced by the more popular No 3, played by the young South Korean winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Yekwon Sunwoo; and in came Venezuelan-born conductor José Luis Gomez to save the day at the last minute when the previously listed podium incumbent had to call off.

What didn’t change was Shostakovich’s Symphony No 12 “The Year 1917”, the composer’s trenchant, if quizzical, tribute to Lenin’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. I’m guessing it was already in Gomez’s repertoire, as it produced the climactic high point of an evening whose first half never quite hit the button.

The RSNO & Yekwon Sunwoo, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ***

In the Shostakovich, the tension was electric, pulverising and visceral. This symphony rarely draws breath from start to finish, its raw intense themes, Russian to the core, laden with angst and earthy desperation. Gomez captured that mood from the outset, the opening cello theme dry and machine-like, yet oozing melancholic determination; the strings as a whole injecting a rich sense of spiritual righteousness; the entire orchestra, when called for, ablaze with fury and venom.

But this performance also embraced the suggestion of irony: that sense of primitive naivety hinted at in the rude simplicity of its themes; the mechanised violence of the brass and percussion; that hollow rejoicing which makes its insistent point at the end. With the RSNO in alert and vigorous form, this performance said it all very convincingly.

It’s likely that Gomez had only a matter of days to get to grips with a brand new work by Daniel Kidane, whose short orchestral opener, Zulu, was chosen out of a number of pieces submitted by various young composers involved in last year’s RSNO Composers Hub project. Kidane’s piece celebrates the fighting spirit of the Zulu people, which its relentless momentum and Stravisnkian use of vying, juxtaposed building blocks conjures up well. The performance itself, however, lacked the sharpness and energy which the Shostakovich later exhibited.

In Yekwon Sunwoo we heard an impressive and flamboyant pianist, particularly in those absorbing unaccompanied passages of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto that focus in on the pianist, and in his lengthy encore. But there were too many moments where this performance didn’t sit right with the orchestra. Issues of balance, and occasional lapses in co-ordination let it down.