Søndergård and RSNO impress in Night of Early and Late Romanticism

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Mahler, Beethoven: Roderick Williams (baritone), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.4.2017. (SRT)

Sibelius – FinlandiaThe Oceanides

Mahler – Five songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Beethoven – Symphony No. 1 Op.21

As the lights went down for the beginning of tonight’s concert, it occurred to me with a start that I don’t think I’ve ever heard Finlandia live before. Maybe it was for that reason that, as I listened to the opening, it hit me between the eyeballs just what a brilliant orchestrator Sibelius was at this point. There’s that snarling brass crescendo that lays the foundation for so much of what comes afterwards, then the winds who inject so much pleading into such a brief phrase, before those incredibly expressive strings seem to suggest a whole nation’s suffering in just a few bars. Wow! And that’s before we even got into the scalp-prickling excitement of the main march theme and the soulful national hymn. Maybe it’s because it caught me by surprise, but listening to this performance I found myself wondering whether Sibelius ever surpassed Finlandia in the sheer directness of his communication. The Oceanides, by contrast, leaves me almost completely cold. Well played as it was tonight, with frolicking flutes and undulating strings, it remains for me a sequence of textures that doesn’t really go anywhere. Thomas Søndergård’s three concerts with the RSNO this season all feature different combinations of Beethoven, Mahler and Sibelius, and all three programmes show what a vast range of moods the composers can encompass. Unfortunately, The Oceanides also reminded me that Sibelius can be a crashing bore at times.

On paper this concert might look as though it would have been better played in reverse order, but if Finlandia worked surprisingly well as a concert opener, then Beethoven’s First Symphony also worked well as a closer, its lithe rhythms and athletic textures sounding great in very clean playing, with Søndergård showing a pleasingly fleet approach to the tempi.

It was also a treat having Roderick Williams to sing a selection of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs.  Williams has a voice of extraordinary beauty, perhaps even a little too beautiful for the condemned Drummer Boy in Der Tamboursg’sell; but he caught just the right tone for the heartsick melancholy of Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and the whimsy of Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?  It’s only a shame that he was so closely tied to the score he held in his hands. These songs are replete with golden opportunities for vocal and visual acting, but he spent so much energy looking for the words that, in the humorous songs like Antonius von Padua and Lob des hohen Verstandes, that was almost entirely missing.

Søndergård’s third Beethoven, Mahler and Sibelius concert with the RSNO takes place on the weekend of 26th-27th May.

Simon Thompson

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