This week, the RSNO announced that the Danish conductor, Thomas Søndergård, will be the orchestra’s new Music Director from autumn 2018, succeeding Peter Oundjian. This news is met by rapturous applause when announced at the start of tonight’s concert, and no wonder: he has been a hit with audiences in his recent collaborations with the orchestra, who play for him very well. Tonight is no exception, with a wonderful programme, half of which is given over to Sibelius.
We start with three (mostly quiet) movements from his incidental music to the play Kuolema, a typically Nordic story of love and transcendence. The opening Canzonetta is a short study in muted tones, whilst the famous Scene with Cranes has its avian activity evident in its wonderful clarinet writing. The set finishes with the lilting and mysterious Valse triste, with only one real loud climax. It’s good to hear these played as a short set.
Next, Jennifer Johnston is the mezzo soprano in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder—five short songs which were composed when the composer was at his most happiest in love and life. Allusions to nature are abundant, with the exception of the beautiful Um Mitternacht, the highlight of the cycle. It is sung wonderfully by Johnston, whose full, rich tone is ideal for this music. Never swamped by the orchestra, she gives an outstanding performance. Simply sublime.
We move to 1806 after the interval for Beethoven: the third of his Leonore overtures. No. 3 is the best one, but Beethoven never used it to introduce his opera Fidelio, providing a shorter overture instead. No. 3 has all the fire and hints to the music of the opera, but it is way too dramatic, and works best as a stand-alone work.
The orchestra crackles with fire and energy, from the darkness of the prison cell to the depiction of Florestan’s moment of freedom. The offstage trumpet calls are particularly effective. Søndergård conducts with real energy and produces a wonderfully classical sound: a contrast to the rest of the programme.
We end with more Sibelius—his mighty and popular Fifth Symphony, written for his 50th birthday celebrations. Sibelius made major revisions and restructurings to this symphony, resulting in a two-movement-in-one at the start, the opening music morphing from being slow and sustained, into a scherzo that gradually gains pace ‘like white-water rafting’, as one commentator put it. The second movement is a set of variations on a folk like tune that is treated ingeniously.
As with much Sibelius, the famous finale begins as a long slow burn, the theme emerging gradually. This theme the composer likened to swans flying, and starts the characteristic swaying that takes the music on a heroic journey. This is very much brass territory from the opening horn calls, to the full complement of brass playing the swan melody at the end, before the hammer-blows of the six final chords.
It is an emotional movement, and one feels is part of a much greater journey. Søndergård understands this, delivers with real passion, and persuades his musicians and the audience to believe Sibelius’s great vision.
This is outstanding, sharp-etched and finely honed playing from an energised RSNO. Let’s hope their collaboration with their new Music Director will lead to more fantastic results.