RSNO/Robert Abbado [Genoveva … Nänie … Schicksalslied … Pieter Wispelwey plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto]

Genoveva, Op.81 – Overture
Nänie, Op.82
Schicksalslied, Op.54
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104

Pieter Wispelwey (cello)

RSNO Chorus

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Roberto Abbado

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 25 February, 2011
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

If concerts had titles, this intriguingly constructed programme might have been called “Mentors” – Robert and Clara Schumann nurtured the talent of Brahms, and he then encouraged and furthered the career of Dvořák.

Neither the Overture to “Genoveva” nor Brahms’s choral works (other than “Ein deutsches Requiem”) are frequently performed and therefore they suffer unmerited neglect, so their inclusion in this concert was welcome. Under the excitable Roberto Abbado the Schumann was something of a curate’s egg. Tempos throughout were pushed hard, the introduction flowing rather than brooding, the allegro a notch too fast to allow for clear articulation by the strings, and by the time the triumphant coda was reached there was simply no elbow-room to bring the work to a resounding conclusion – which presages the exultant final bars of Brahms’s Second Symphony and cries out for a weight of sound impossible at this helter-skelter speed. On the plus side the depth of the RSNO’s strings, especially the double basses, was hugely impressive, as was the idiomatic oboe contribution of Katy MacKintosh.

For “Nänie” and “Song of Destiny” the RSNO Chorus numbered around 130. The deeply felt “Nänie” is an elegy for Brahms’s painter friend, Anselm Feuerbach, a threnody mixing lament at the transience of Life with consolation and a stoical acceptance of loss. Written in the wake of “A German Requiem”, “Song of Destiny” is the larger, more dramatic work, its initial quiet contemplation of the seraphic life of those who have passed on giving way to a stormy central section contrasting the fate of restless, suffering mankind; unusually, the closing section dispenses with the choir and reprises the opening paragraph but for orchestra alone. After a slightly tentative opening to “Nänie” the choir sang well in both works. Abbado’s direction, now baton-less, was confident but lacking in subtlety; there is far more light and shade to both works, especially “Song of Destiny”, than he uncovered and in the powerful ‘suffering mankind’ episode it was the quality of choral sound which suffered. However, with notably eloquent playing from the wood wind and horn principals the epilogue was profoundly consolatory.

Pieter WispelweyStanding in at short notice for the indisposed Sol Gabetta, Pieter Wispelwey (making his RSNO debut) gave a more than creditable account of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Once past an over-emphatic first entry, he played it absolutely straight, not that he had a great deal of help from Abbado who treated the orchestral part as though it were a symphony, although Dvořák causes problems of balance by his inclusion of trombones and tuba (he had heard Victor Herbert’s similarly orchestrated Second Cello Concerto in 1894 during his extended stay in America) but he can scarcely have envisaged a battle royal between soloist and orchestra. Fortunately Wispelwey is a big player and an excellent chamber musician, so he coped well with Abbado’s less than sympathetic accompaniment. Once again, it was the quieter sections and their refined interplay between soloist and wind principals which linger in the memory, and the excellent David McClenaghan gave us an elegantly restrained account of the horn solo, a theme so magical it needs no special pleading.

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