Thomas Søndergård masterminds a tremendous RSNO performance of music from Vienna’s Golden Age

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss, Mahler: Jane Irwin (alto), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 7.3.2020. (GT)

Thomas Søndergård (c) Andy Buchanan

R. StraussAlso Sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

MahlerDas Lied von der Erde

Following the revelatory performance last week under Sir Roger Norrington for the ‘Beethoven Revolution’ series (review click here), the RSNO continued their sequence of performing all the Mahler symphonies, including the orchestral song cycles, under Thomas Søndergård. This was an opportunity to reaffirm the standards of accomplishment by this fine orchestra. For this concert the RSNO linked two masterpieces by late romantic composers of the Golden Age in Vienna.

Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra followed Till Eulenspiegel and surprised many because of its quite different nature, and for its association with Nietzsche’s controversial ‘Superman’ ideology. However, the composer had no intention of having anything ‘to do with philosophy set to music’. According to his biographer Ernst Krause: ‘he had only taken the lyrical, ode-like content of Zarathustras vivid language as the starting point for his tone poem.’ Nietzsche himself wrote of Strauss’s music: ‘Under which sublime rubric does this Zarathustra really belong? I almost think among the symphonies.’

It was challenging for audiences to grasp the orchestral harmonies and chromatic scales in Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra before the piece gained popularity with the celebrated film 2001: A Space Odyssey as the work in its entirety was not highly regarded. The RSNO recordings of all the Strauss tone poems were critically acclaimed under Neeme Järvi for Chandos, and recently the orchestra have made a recording under Thomas Søndergård – their Music Director – of Ein Heldenleben and the Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Hence there was a particular sense of expectancy for this performance. The splendid opening bars of ‘Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang’ in the ‘sunrise’ sequence were masterly played on the newly installed organ by Martin Bawtree, the tension buoyed admirably by Paolo Dutto on contrabassoon, a great tremolo on the double-basses, and the riveting fanfare by the trumpets. There was a moment of suspense as the violins, and violas began ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’ reprising the ‘dawn’ motif, first on the flute of Kathryn Bryan, and the Gregorian ‘Credo in unum deum’ motif on the strings.

The ‘nature’ motif emerged on the violins in ‘Von der grossen Sehnsucht’ and was remarkably articulated on the clarinet by Nicholas Carpenter. Here the Danish conductor showed he is a masterful interpreter of this composer’s luxurious harmonic structures, the orchestra depicting the images of desire, without emphasising the manner of other conductors to bring out the spectacular, but concentrate on the detail in the textures of Strauss’s chromatic masterpiece. Interestingly, in a passage, the organ intoned a Magnificat among a diverse range of colours unwrapped by Søndergård’s meticulous direction. The violins introduced a fresh bright idea, echoed by the harps, and flute, in ‘Von den Freuden- und Leidenschaften’ with the trumpets entering auspiciously, again representing the ‘nature’ motif. Adrian Wilson’s oboe created a mood of uncertainty and initiated a funeral lament as ‘Das Grablied’ was picked up by the cellos, flute and trumpet. The now bright lyrical motif reappeared as a parodistic academic fugue in ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ on the harps, while the heroic ‘dawn’ theme returned in ‘Der Genesende’ on resplendent strings. ‘Das Tanzlied’ was notable for a wonderful violin solo from Maya Iwabuchi, and Wilson’s oboe once again. Now there was a feeling of Gemütlichkeit on the violins which led to a glorious passage of optimism on the woodwind, brass and percussion in the heroic ‘nature’ motif. Momentously, the great bell rang out, followed by a slow deceleration with the two harps, and the first violins intoning a peaceful song in B minor, announcing the hymn of life in the ‘Nachtwanderlied’ with a slow dying away – reprising the theme of ‘nature’ in C major on the basses and cellos.

Mahler’s song cycle based on Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte alludes to what Bruno Walter considered the composer’s farewell to life following his daughter’s death, and his own deteriorating health. Das Lied von der Erde was considered as a symphony by its composer. The opening bars of ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ seemed as if the orchestra was momentarily too loud, however, Mahler wrote this passage to emphasise the message of the text by driving both musicians and singers to the maximum. Under Søndergård’s direction, Simon O’Neill was assisted by gorgeous playing from the orchestra, and especially the clarion call on the trumpet by Christopher Hart, and the bass clarinet by Duncan Swindells.

Jane Irwin began her career as a mezzo-soprano, but in recent years her voice has risen to take on a wide range of soprano role; she is also a fine actress and able to offer a splendid portrayal of Bethge’s verses. In ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, she sang impressively, conveying eloquently the mixed feelings of happiness and sad reflection in ‘Der süsse Duft der Blumen ist verflogen’. She was accompanied particularly well by the oboe, and again by the lamenting violins, Irwin – eschewing full voice – was sensitively aided by subtle playing from the cello of Aleksei Kiseliov and the clarinet of Nicholas Carpenter.

In ‘Von der Jugend’ the playing underlined how fine this orchestra performs Mahler – they are halfway through performing the cycle of symphonies – and here they were on top form with notably eloquent woodwind. With the balance better adjusted, nevertheless, O’Neill still seemed to have lost the wonderful heldentenor voice he so admirably displayed a couple of years ago when he sang in Die Walküre with this orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Irwin returned in the wonderfully lyrical ‘Von der Schönheit’ and was marvellously accompanied by the golden flute of Kathryn Bryan and the glorious first violins. Here the idiom was clear with charming, beautiful, singing. Chamber-like playing from the orchestra was sometimes hushed and magical strings ever so sensitively brought out the lyricism in Mahler’s setting.

In ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ the New Zealand tenor was exceptional in his portrayal, and the orchestra under Søndergård delivered richly colourful harmonies, notably accompanied by a fine violin solo from Iwabuchi once again.

The protracted setting of ‘Der Abschied’ revealed Irwin at her very finest vocal and interpretative mastery. She delivered a stunning performance of the concluding setting of the translated Chinese words – one of the most intimate and beautiful pieces of music Mahler wrote. Irwin’s beautiful singing brought this fine concert to a pleasurable and memorable finale with ‘Ewig… ewig…’ ringing out in the hall to several moments of stunned silence before rapturous applause erupted. It is difficult to doubt Leonard Bernstein’s opinion that this is Mahler’s ‘greatest symphony’.

Gregor Tassie

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