United Kingdom Sibelius, Lindberg, Tchaikovsky: Kari Kriikku (clarinet), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 06.03.2015 (SRT)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6
Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 Pathétique
Thomas Søndergård may “only” be the RSNO’s Principal Guest, but of all their regular artists he seems to be the one to have the most galvanising impact, and I really look forward to his concerts. The orchestra seem to enjoy playing for him, too. He marries clarity of approach with a marvellous expressiveness, and that makes him a top notch interpreter of Sibelius, for one thing. He brought an all-important sense of flow to the Sixth Symphony with tempo relations that made perfect sense. The late symphonies are all about flexibility of movement, after all, and Søndergård steered the tricky course through the myriad changes (or are they?) of tempo with surety and skill, the orchestra following him with marvellously precise playing, particularly from the winds whose opening figurations in the first movement were as clear as cut glass. The strings, likewise, managed to sound clean and clear but not cold, finding just the right balance of iciness and energy. There was even a sense of joy (not a word you often associate with Sibelius!) to the top of their sound, and the symphony felt like a conversation between different sections who were listening to one another carefully.
The Tchaikovsky was only marginally less successful, a little workaday at the beginning, and Søndergård was unable to restrain himself from slowing down at the exciting climax of the march. The strings glowed in the second and fourth movements, though, and had the consistency of molten lava during that hair-raising torrent of sound that brings the first movement’s development to an end.
How exciting, also, to be able to hear Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto in the flesh, and with the soloist for whom it was written! The concerto has had more than 60 performances since its premiere in 2002, making it pretty darnn successful by the standards of contemporary music. It’s partly because the texture of the work is very appealing: the whole thing glitters bright, with attractive material, recognisable themes and a perpetual sense of forward movement. Lindberg deploys the orchestra brilliantly in sections (pitting the brass against the percussion, for example) and sometimes all as a unit.
The clarinet’s halting opening theme acts as a unifying figure for the whole piece, from its once-upon-a-time opening to the grand climax that precedes its somewhat mischievous ending, and Kari Kriikku performed it in the manner of one who has it in his blood. He extracted some sounds from the instrument that I’ve never heard coming from a clarinet before, be it multiphonic grumblings, stratospheric peeps or a deep rasping that sounded close to a didgeridoo. He also has the panache of an actor; kneeling, writhing or striding his way through the part, though whether his stroll across the stage to play one passage in the face of the principal cello was planned or not, who can say?! It was heartening to see the audience give it such a warm reception, too, and Kriikku’s encore, a very cheeky take on Silent Night spoke as much as the concerto about his anarchic style.