Thomas Sondergard conducts an outstanding RSNO concert of Sibelius in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Sibelius, Sørenson: Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 20.11.2021. (GT)

Catriona Morison

Bent Sørenson – Evening Land
Berlioz – Les nuits d’été, Op.7
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43

Following last week’s concert (review here) displaying superb performances of interestingly varied repertoire, this concert offered so much with a little gem from Denmark, a pearl from Berlioz’s colourful song cycle with Scotland’s own 2017 Singer of the World in Catriona Morison, and Sibelius’s great Second Symphony. I have never heard anything from the contemporary Danish composer Bent Sørenson, but this was another interesting addition to the orchestra’s repertoire, additionally in that the composer has produced works in diverse genre offering new and exciting ideas in music.

Sørenson (b.1958) studied with Per Nørgård and is a confirmed modernist; he experiments with minor and major tonality and the use of microtonal inflections. His catalogue includes an award-winning 2016 concerto for piano, violin and cello (L’Isola della Cittá) and he has written a huge number of works for diverse genre including electronic music. Evening Land was a reflection of his childhood in Zealand in Denmark, as he recalls, ‘I was looking out of the window, and there is a very special evening light over the fields – far away there are trees and a cow – it is as if the world is infinite…’.  The Evening Land opens on a prolonged violin solo with a somewhat melancholic theme played very quietly by the orchestra leader Maya Iwabuchi; this gets picked up by the strings and brass while a foreboding idea emerges from the trombones and horns. It all gradually rises to a crescendo with intense insect-like sounds on the violins and woodwind again, before subsiding back to the violin solo and disappearing into silence. Lasting just less than a quarter of an hour, this was an interesting piece, but there lacked a persuasive narrative in the work, but as the New York Times critic wrote, ‘Evening Land proved well worth repeated hearings’.

In 2017, the Scottish-German mezzo soprano Catriona Morison won not only the main prize at the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, but she also shared the song prize. After her outstanding performance during the recent Edinburgh International Festival in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (review here), this concert was eagerly awaited. In all her appearances in recent years, she has never failed to show her outstanding acting and vocal brilliance in opera, choral and the more intimate song recital repertoire. Another of Morison’s talents is her ability to portray the heart of the music no matter in which language she is singing.

In Villanelle – the opening song of Les nuits d’été – markedly in the ‘Le printemps est venu, ma belle’, she sang gorgeously, expressively and with harmonic colours accompanied superbly by the flute of Katherine Bryan and on the oboe of Adrian Wilson. Morison with her eyes and facial expressions showed her complete affinity with the texts by Théophile Gautier. While in the desperately poignant Le spectre de la rose, she showed craving, sublime singing and identity with her heroine; in Sur les lagunes: Lamento, she sang of her desolation (‘Ma belle amie est morte’) with expressive feeling and bitterness at not joining her lover in death. Perhaps the finest and most moving of Morison’s singing was in Absence, quite beautifully sung at ‘Reviens, reviens, ma belle aimé!’ – often heart-breaking in her grasping the soul of the poem – with a morbid tone following in Au cimetière, enhanced sensitively by the flute accompaniment; and lastly, a mood change in the final song (L’île inconnue) intently lively, upbeat and full of the joys of life. The phrase ‘Dites, la jeune belle’ saw and heard Morison again singing with wonderful expression in its bright harmony. Morison’s artistry in capturing the spirit of love, of youthful innocence, of death, to renewal was tangible in both voice and characterisation.

This orchestra has a fine tradition in performing the Sibelius symphonies; Sir Alexander Gibson was awarded the Sibelius Medal for his achievement in conducting and recording all the orchestral music with this orchestra, and Sibelius remains a constant part of the orchestra’s repertoire. The opening Allegretto began on a serene rising idea with the woodwind introducing a pastoral theme echoed by the horns in an idyllic portrayal of nature. Musicologists have stated that while there is no clear principal theme, as many as eight different ideas appear in the opening section. The string playing was if we were listening to a harmonious carpet of sound – so luxurious was their virtuosity. After a mysteriously romantic theme was introduced by the woodwind, this was picked up by the strings and transferred to an extended passage poco allegro introduced by the timpani and then the clarinet of Timothy Orpen. This upbeat idea was joined by the whole orchestra, and we heard a very impressive climax on fortissimo. The woodwind introduced a secondary threatening idea which rose to a crescendo after the reprise of the first one on the brass.

The second movement (Tempo andante, ma rubato) opened on the timpani, followed by a theme on the low strings playing pizzicato, and then two bassoons introduced a rather sinister mood portending a feeling of catastrophe. Echoed by the brass and orchestra, a new theme in F sharp minor marked as the ‘Christus’ theme by the composer portrayed sadness and melancholy when introduced by David Hubbard on bassoon, and emphasised by the brass, with an idea heard in the strings returning again to melancholy. A wonderfully lyrical idea from Wilson’s oboe came in the third movement, a scherzo, which formed a trio with an excited ghostly idea together with clarinets and horns which is supposedly based on an old Finnish folk song, or perhaps Gregorian chant. Heard in the Lento e soave passage it was repeated several times and developed massively before bursting into the Finale as the trumpets sing a fanfare on three notes sounding glorious and majestic, a secondary theme from the woodwind induced the build-up of tension, and suddenly there was a switch from minor to major heralding the final coda and creating an idea of fulfilment in a glorious Sibelian climax.

This was a tremendous concert embracing both new and old, the heart of which was the glorious voice and characterisation by Catriona Morison in Berlioz’s masterly song cycle, a fresh voice in the Danish composer Bent Sørenson, of whom we need to hear more, and the glorious Sibelius Second Symphony. The orchestra under Thomas Søndergård was again magnificent and in top form.

Gregor Tassie

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