RSNO / Sondergard
Perth Concert Hall
Where is the best place in Scotland to hear an all-Brahms concert by the national symphony orchestra? With Glasgow Royal Concert Hall out of commission, the intriguing choice for the RSNO’s “Festival of Brahms” was between the venerable vast Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the refurbished Glasgow City Halls, or the opening night of the run at Perth Concert Hall.
With the sort of attendance it deserves to see all the time, the newer venue turned out to be a sound choice. Although this was often full-fat Brahms, conductor Thomas Sondergard wringing some old-school emotional grandeur from the score of Symphonies 2 and 3, the acoustic of the house was never overwhelmed by the presence of 50 string players on the stage.
Rather, in fact, the physical relationship of the audience to the players seemed to play a part in the way Sondergard went about the job of making sure that every detail of Brahms music was heard – orchestral writing that was more radical than he is often credited – while still allowing Brahms-lovers to soak in the warm bath of his Romantic melodies.
The first movement of the Second Symphony, which was played after the interval, is one of the finest sound-pictures of a pastoral idyll, and it was sumptuous here, Sondergard finding the occasional darkness in what is some of the composer’s brightest music. There was a slight raggedness at the start of the Adagio, which may be why first cello Betsy Taylor looked a little surprised when the conductor brought her section to its feet at the end, but they and all the strings were generally on their mettle across the whole evening, ready to dig in for those big sweeping moments, but never missing the precision the music requires.
Guest first horn Alexander Boukikov was also singled out for a bow, and deservedly so. His fine solo moments sat alongside excellent work from all five horn players, rhythmically as well as harmonically.
The Festival of Brahms began, of course, with the Academic Festival Overture, the composer’s acknowledgement of his Honorary Doctorate that has become one of his best-known works, and here serving as the template for Sondergard’s approach to balance, between the sections of the orchestra and finding both muscle and finesse. Although you would have to like Brahms a great deal to find out, it might have been interesting to hear how he modulated his forces in the very different environments of the other halls.
The conductor’s methodology was even more apparent in Symphony No 3, in the very deliberate pacing of the second movement, the dynamic gear shifts at the start of the finale and the work’s very measured finish. Chamber orchestras have perhaps made the running in Brahms symphony cycles in recent times, but Sondergard made the case for the composer remaining core repertoire for big bands.