Thomas Søndergård Has a Most Galvanising Impact on the RSNO


Sibelius, Mahler, Beethoven: Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26.5.2017. (SRT)

Sibelius – Music from Kuolema; Symphony No.5

Mahler – Rückert-Lieder

Beethoven – Leonore Overture No.3

This concert was exciting for lots of reason.  For one thing, there is real energy to the RSNO’s Sibelius playing.  You feel like you’re in the hands of experts when you have an orchestra with a Sibelius heritage like theirs, and Thomas Søndergård ably demonstrated his Sibelian credentials during the composer’s recent anniversary year, as well as elsewhere this season.  This interpretation of the Fifth Symphony felt like a river flowing out to the sea, to borrow Stephen Johnson’s analogy.  Not only did it move organically, and at times imperceptibly, but by the time it got to the end it had developed a momentum that carried all before it, with a thrilling finale that showed immense control as well as exciting shine.  In total contrast, the pieces from Kuolema were masterpieces of intense concentration, the strings floating expansively through the Valse Triste and Canzonetta, and standing in icy contrast to the plangent winds in the Scene with Cranes.  Is it too much to imagine some extra poignancy here, stemming from the fact that the concert was dedicated to the victims of the Manchester atrocity?

Beethoven’s Leonore 3 was more conventional in its shape and pacing, but Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder brought a real discovery (for me) in the shape of mezzo Jennifer Johnston.  Hers is an extraordinary voice, with a chest voice of arresting power that is reminiscent of a contralto.  That strong centre to the voice gave her an almost declamatory air in ‘Um Mitternacht’, like an ancient prophetess, before a transcendent, triumphant ending as the singer places her trust in God.  The RSNO brass crowned this moment, too, and the orchestra as a whole gave a folksy feel to ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’.  ‘Ich bin der Welt’ was then beautifully controlled, allowed neither to wallow nor to lose focus.

The other major cause of excitement, however, was the news that conductor Thomas Søndergård will take over as the RSNO’s Music Director from September 2018.  This is great news for them, and for audiences.  I’ve tediously trumpeted loud praise in these pages for Søndergård’s work with the orchestra, and I’ve long thought he was the regular collaborator that has had the most galvanising impact on them.  He is popular with the players and justifiably popular with audiences too, and I can’t wait to see what he does when he has control over more of the orchestra’s artistic decision-making levers.

We still have a year of Peter Oundjian’s leadership to go, however, and he ends the season on a grand scale next week with Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Simon Thompson

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