Søndergård Takes RSNO in an Exciting Direction

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Andersson, Mahler, Sibelius : Roderick Williams (baritone), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26.10.2012 (SRT)

Andersson: The Garden of Delights
Mahler: Blumine
Songs of a Wayfarer
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

Thomas Søndergård is a conductor whose work with the RSNO has impressed me a lot in the past. He’s popular with both the players and the audiences, and the orchestra has acknowledged this by appointing him the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor. It ties him into the orchestra’ s programme and, together with the appointment of Peter Oundjian as Music Director, it signals a new and hopefully exciting direction for the orchestra. It’s a nice sign that he begins his first concert as Principal Guest with a work by his fellow Nordic musician, B Tommy Andersson whose Garden of Delights was inspired by seeing Bosch’s painting of similar name in the Prado. Andersson structures his work similarly to the painting with a triptych of orchestral blocks: a lush, Romantic section coming between two faster, savage elements which I found very successful. The outer sections rely on thrusting, angular rhythms which are set against each other to exciting effect, while the rich central section relies on sensuality and atmosphere, with Mahlerian horn writing and meandering string lines suggesting Adam and Eve’s communion with God. It’s almost Brucknerian in the scale of the sound and its structural device of blocking contrasts of sound against one another, though the central section feels too long, effective as it is.

Mahler’s Blumine came across as a beautiful piece of nature painting with shimmering strings and some fantastically played solos. The orchestral backdrop of the Mahler’s Wayfaring Songs was also extremely effective, transparent and sensitive in the poignant outer songs but achieving power and violence in the third song. Roderick Williams’ light but wonderfully expressive baritone is an excellent choice for these songs, but he sounded worryingly pinched at the top, and a nasty wobble marred the end of Ging heut’ morgen. The peace in the final pages was lovely, but couldn’t altogether chase the feeling that he wasn’t completely at home.

The most famous Nordic composer of them all completed the concert and we were treated to a luxurious, no holds barred performance of what the Finns called their “liberation symphony” at its first performances. Søndergård has a lovely way with the orchestra, and they clearly love working with him. His movements on the podium are enormously expressive, graceful, sometimes even balletic at times, but he uses them to coax a tremendously clean sound out of the players. His Sibelius feels like it has been hosed down, revealing new facets of the score, which seems to glint in the Northern sunlight. The string sound throbbed and pulsed from first bar to last, while the brass sounded fresh and exciting, not just in the final peroration but adding a special splash of colour to the whole piece. Søndergård is an exciting presence with the RSNO, and I’m already looking forward to hearing what he’s going to do with the Symphonie Fantastique in November.

Simon Thompson