Orchestral Showpieces from Søndergård and RSNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Stravinsky : Truls Mørk (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25.05.2013 (SRT)

Dvořák: Cello Concerto
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1947)

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto might seem an odd pairing with Petrouchka, but hearing the two works side by side made me think about the spectacular range of colour that each composer wrote into their scores. They also felt more like orchestral showpieces than I’m used to hearing.

The colour of Petrouchka is one of its most obvious selling points, and the RSNO seemed to relish every episode, from the exuberance of the Shrovetide fair and the angular urgency of Petrouchka’s theme, through to the lethargic manner with which the puppets first crawl into life and the ending that never loses its power to surprise. Thomas Søndergård, of whose work with the RSNO I am a great fan, relished putting Stravinsky’s huge blocks of colour against one another to great effect, mulching them together to produce an effect that was raw yet exhilarating. He tapped into the restless energy that drives the score from first beat to last, tripping from one section into another with a sense of purpose and direction, propelling the music forward with a sense of unstoppable momentum. Meanwhile, the RSNO seemed to be turning the piece into a concerto for orchestra, each section relishing its moment in the sun, be it the strings darting urgently against the piano in the Moor’s music, or the delectable trio of bassoon, flute and trumpet in the waltz.

It’s perhaps more surprising to hear such sectional brilliance in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, but hear it we did, especially in the brass, which surely serve as the orchestral foundation of this concerto. Yes, the star moments (such as the solo horn’s statement of the first movement’s second theme) were great, but more impressive to me was the colour of the trombones and tubas in the slow movement; the strength of their sound, stormy and violent, was remarkable during the central section where the composer includes a phrase from the song he had written for his sister-in-law Josefina, but then it subsided to something of spine-tingling beauty at the movement’s end, just as the horns were infinitely touching in their final statement of the main theme. Similarly, the strings had a lovely haze around their sound during the coda as Dvořák remembers the earlier themes. Truls Mørk was a fairly statuesque presence on his podium, but his playing was remarkably expressive. His virtuosity during the quick passages was undeniably impressive, but what stuck with me most was the intensity (spirituality, almost) with which he played some of the gentler passages, such as the opening of the slow movement or the second theme of the finale, which sounded like some sort of benediction. Søndergård, meanwhile, was happy to embrace the extremes of the work, moving from pianissimo to fortissimo in the slow movement to great effect, heightening the drama without losing the beauty.

Simon Thompson