United Kingdom Strauss, Beethoven, Bartók: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 24.10.2014 (SRT)
R Strauss: Metamorphosen
Beethoven: Fidelio Overture
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
Hearing the strings of the RSNO in Metamorphosen reminded me of their star turn in Bruckner 7 two weeks ago. Strauss’s great lament for the destruction of German culture is one of the greatest pieces that a string ensemble can play and the 23 soloists of the RSNO, sounding mellow yet focused, produced a distinctively powerful sound, particularly compelling when, towards the end of the work, the sighing motif of the opening returns to devastating effect, played by the full group. Thomas Søndergård, conducting without a baton as if to caress the music into existence, built the sound from the bottom up, its distinctive tinge of darkness making the violins’ first entry sound almost startling in contrast to the prevailing colour. They then became meltingly sweet in the major key central section, but they always sounded as though a veil had been cast over the sound, as befits the work’s sombre origins. That focus on beauty meant that the work’s drama perhaps took a back seat in all but the most strident climaxes of the development, but Søndergård shaped the work’s downward trajectory with compelling power: the themes of the recapitulation were undeniably darker than when they had first appeared, and when it came to the coda, after the Eroica theme is heard at its most explicit, the music sank into eerie darkness that reduced the audience to silence rather than instant applause.
The Concerto for Orchestra was beautifully played, Bartók’s kaleidoscopic scoring passing around the orchestra like a precious jewel. Highlights for me included the searing playing of the strings (especially the violas) in the slower sections, but I most enjoyed the second and fourth movements. The fourth had beauty (those violas again) and bite in just the right proportion and the Giuoco delle coppie, for once, actually sounded like a game, the pairs sounding as if they had just missed one another’s tuning, giving it a delightfully sardonic touch. If Beethoven’s Fidelio overture seems an odd companion piece for these two works from the 1940s, then that didn’t stop it being cleanly played, though the rushed tempo for the central section meant that the music lost some of the clarity that had been so evident elsewhere in the evening.