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Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák : Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Roberto Abbado (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25.2.2011 (SRT)

Schumann: Genoveva Overture

Brahms: Nänie, Song of Destiny

Dvořák: Cello Concerto

Roberto Abbado has become a semi-regular guest with the RSNO. He’s most celebrated for his work in the opera house, especially in the bel canto repertoire, but I can’t shake off the feeling that he just isn’t as comfortable in front of a symphony orchestra. The core Germanic repertoire of Schumann and Brahms is far from a natural fit for him, and he seemed to fumble his way through Schumann’s Genoveva overture, an unexciting reading that was enlivened only by the bright spotlights of the RSNO horns. Similarly, Nänie felt steady but lacked much real expression, not helped by a RSNO Chorus whose tone, while attractive, lacked focus. Things improved for the Song of Destiny, however, perhaps because its binary moods would not be amiss on an operatic stage. The chorus had more to get their teeth into here, from the blissful invocation to the blessed to the angry meditation on mankind’s unhappy lot on earth, and they responded with clearer attack and better enunciation. Ironically, though, the real stars of both Brahms works were the orchestra: the gentle wind choir that begins and ends Nänie was gentle without being sentimental, and the string tone was blissful at the opening and conclusion of the Song of Destiny, giving way to agitated figurations at the start of the tempestuous central section.


But if the first half of this concert was touch and go then the second was on an altogether higher level. Sol Gabetta, the originally scheduled soloist for Dvořák’s cello concerto, had withdrawn due to illness: her replacement – and what a replacement! – was the outstanding Pieter Wispelwey. Here is a truly outstanding musician, producing world class quality without once resorting to showiness. He milked a gorgeous tone from his instrument, sharp and vigorous for the first theme, gorgeously lyrical for the second, and finding new heights of expression in the slow movement. His intense concentration produced a palpable feeling of musical communion, double-stops and runs being tossed off with ease, proving himself an entirely individual protagonist. He was met with a much more secure orchestral texture; sympathetic strings buoyed up by assertive brass which blazed with excitement at the climaxes. The contrasting moods of the slow movement were also more skilfully judged by the conductor, and if the rondo occasionally bumped along then it served all the more to spotlight the soloist’s distinction. In the finale each rendition of the rondo theme sounded distinctively different and Wispelwey’s final phrases, yielding to the great coda, ebbed and flowed with a sense of organic growth that elevates a performance to the level of the extraordinary.

Simon Thompson


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