RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

About eight years ago, when Thomas Søndergård was appointed principal guest conductor of the RSNO, the late Herald music critic Michael Tumelty rightly suggested that the RSNO badly needed a Sibelius Cycle and in Søndergård they clearly “had the man for the job”.

We may not yet have had that full cycle per se, but Søndergård – who is now, of course, elevated to the main music director’s role – has been slowly chipping away at the symphonies. Last weekend he ended a glorious concert with Sibelius’s Second Symphony, based on which Tumelty’s assessment remains sound as a bell. 

It’s one of the Finnish composer’s better-known symphonies, yet like many of them there is something in its Sibelian DNA that can be as enigmatic for the interpreter as it is for the listener. It takes a very tuned-in mind to negotiate what can often seem like emotional short-circuiting and chilling understatement, and give it visceral meaning. 

There wasn’t one moment in Søndergård’s performance on Saturday that failed to connect with the music’s logic and emotional momentum. There was his supreme attention to detail – those moments where Sibelius suddenly dims the lights to reveal only a feverish swarm of buzzing woodwind, or where sheer economy of texture gives starlit intensity to lightly-scored climaxes.

Yet it was anything but clinical. In the opening Allegretto, Søndergård moulded poetic sense out of its thematic miscellany; the Andante played out its strange life and death tussle with breathtaking extremes; and the restive Vivacissimo held plenty back to make its uninterrupted launch into the Finale the moment of release it aspires to be. Well worth catching this again on the RSNO’s digital platform.

The same goes for Catriona Morison’s captivating interpretation of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, which preceded the Sibelius in the first half. The Edinburgh-born mezzo, famous for her winning performance in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is fast developing a maturity in her musical thoughts and delivery that give her performances – think no further than her characterful appearance in Strauss’ Ariadne with the RSNO at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – a very special appeal. 

This Berlioz was beautifully reined-in, Morison using the darkened lustre of her voice to breathe intense passion into the music. There was nothing trivial or posturing, even – as in the final song – where there is scope for a coquettish wink. Morison played the sophisticated card, but always with enlivening charm and warmth. 

Before all this, Søndergård opened the programme with fellow Dane Bent Sørensen’s Evening Land, an evocative meditation on two experiences of the same vivid, momentary childhood vision, one from the composer’s childhood home looking out to a quiet country landscape, the other revisiting that scene in his mind fifty years later from a noisy New York balcony.

Such contrast shapes the music’s format, a simple, hushed opening, a folk-like fiddle solo and silken nostalgia that gradually bends to the whims of growing dissonant harmonies and the relative harshness that soon feeds the New York music. A gorgeous oboe solo rekindles the opening atmosphere. As with the Sibelius that was eventually to follow, Søndergård sought soulful perfection from his orchestra.

Ken Walton