United Kingdom Schubert, Stravinsky: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29.4.2016. (SRT)
Schubert: Symphony No. 3 ; Symphony No. 4 “Tragic”
Stravinsky: Symphony in C; Symphony in Three Movements
Tonight sees that launch of the RSNO’s Stravinsky Project, a week-long exploration of different aspects of the composer’s work. Next week we have the Violin Concerto and The Rite of Spring, and in between is an Under the Skin Of… event exploring the composer’s work. Conductor Thomas Søndergård is the artist that unifies the whole project. “The Stravinsky Project” may be a rather grand name for only two-and-a-bit concerts, but it’s a start. It’s an opportunity to explore the composer’s work on a serious level, and it’s long time since the RSNO has really got its teeth into a series like this – Denève’s Debussy series is the last one I remember – and doing this in the same year as all the Prokofiev Piano Concertos is a big step forwards. Bravo, say I, and let’s hope they do more of them: it’s exactly the sort of thing they should be doing.
Thomas Søndergård is the natural choice to lead it. He’s an exciting presence on the podium, a natural communicator, and he has the forensic musical mind to get to grips not only with the massive architecture of The Rite but also the wiry sound-world of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, from which both these symphonies originate. I have to confess that I’m one of those Philistines who think that Stravinsky’s best music came before the First World War, and that he spent the subsequent decades wondering – not entirely successfully – how on earth he was going to follow the path he himself had blazed. The symphonies strike me as rather too self-consciously witty – the comment about the Symphony in C being “a Cubist portrait of a symphony” says it all – and I can never shake the feeling that Stravinsky is having us all on and enjoying a joke at our expense.
After tonight’s performances, I’m still not convinced that the Emperor is wearing clothes, but I was definitely won over by the glitter of the orchestral sound, like something being held up to the light to bring out its sparkle. In the Symphony in C, the wind colours were especially bright, and the chugging energy and jagged syncopations of the score seemed (almost) to make sense under Søndergård’s baton. There was a beautifully relaxed feel to the Aria, and the honkytonk Scherzo flew. Likewise, the Symphony in Three Movements began and ended with fantastically propulsive energy, and the second movement struck me, more than ever before, as almost Mahlerian in its delicate, nocturnal sound world.
Pairing these two symphonies with two by Schubert was fun but a bit bizarre, and not even Søndergård himself tried to argue for either rhyme or reason in the decision. It reminded me a bit of Valery Gergiev’s pairing of the symphonies of Brahms and Szymanowski at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, the coupling of which enlightened neither composer. Still, it’s always better to hear Schubert than not to hear him, and the orchestra’s muscular sound suited these two symphonies very well indeed, with full-bodied strings and brass, and an assertive approach from the conductor. The Third Symphony was full of energy and drive, featuring a marvellous clarinet, and the wiry string sound that feature so heavily in No. 4 seemed to sail dangerously close to the world of 20th Century dissonance. Maybe there is a reference to Stravinsky after all.