Vienna towards the turn of the 19th century, the capital city of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, was host to a veritable artistic explosion of creativity in philosophy, art, writing and music, all throwing up a bold collective challenge to traditionalists. 1889 saw first performances of Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan and Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 while Berg’s Seven Early Songs are influenced by the heady musical swirl of that Golden Age. For concertgoers brought up on Brahms and Beethoven, Mahler’s First Symphony must have seemed like walking into a new unfamiliar landscape, this unsettling freshness captured by brilliantly by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Thomas Søndergård in a splendid concert to open the season.

Thomas Søndergård © Bjarke Johansen
Thomas Søndergård
© Bjarke Johansen

Richard Strauss’ rumbustious Don Juan, the tale of the Spanish libertine’s amorous exploits set the scene, Søndergård conjuring an exuberant fanfare and dramatic sweeps from the violins. The verses from Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau on which this piece is based covers adventuring exploits, and a reflective lush violin solo provided suitable contrast before the bombastic zeal returned, passions running high in a thrilling full orchestra melee before the music suddenly stopped. Mozart’s Don goes to the underworld, but this Don meets his end in a duel, the music dying away in soft thuds.

Encouraged and influenced by his compositional tutor Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg was a prolific songwriter. Interest in the composer grew after his success with Wozzeck, prompting him to choose Seven Early Songs from his considerable collection and orchestrate them in 1928. The songs are charming small vignettes written during summer vacations for domestic circumstances, but given lush atmospheric romantic edge in these arrangements for reduced orchestral numbers. Karen Cargill’s wonderfully moody mezzo brought the songs to life, sinuous and mercurial as the players created mysterious and sometimes menacing landscapes. Cargill inhabited each piece, sinister in Nacht and sorrowful in Lenau’s Schilflied but opening out in a richness for Die Nachtigall, although her quiet passages were not always quite matched by Søndergård’s players. Sommertage, with its Wagnerian overtones and melancholy, rounded things off perfectly.

Back with full orchestra, Søndergård and his players gave a thrilling performance of Mahler’s First. Watching his elegant conducting, it felt as if he was discovering a whole new world in this staple of the concert repertoire. In the first movement, as the unison strings, cuckoo calls and offstage trumpets conjured nature, it was exciting to see Søndergård selecting his colours carefully and with precision, the centrally placed cellos only gently breaking the initial spell so that the climaxes when they came were monumental, the big brass we wait so long to hear providing a thrilling underpinning. The earthy Ländler was full of energetic bounce and biting strings, a village dance recklessly picking up speed, drawing breath for a lopsided waltz in the trio before returning, the shrill woodwind adding to the excitement. The eerie funeral march on Frère Jaques gave us a view of the dark heart of this work, as the first time the klezmer theme arrived it was a cheeky jaunty counterpart to the mournful tread but after the development, which Søndergård took down to very hushed pianissimo, the bright themes returned mocking and scornful. With barely a pause for reflection the double timpani unleashed a storm so fearsome it sounded genuinely dangerous, Søndergård looking like a sapling bending in the wind as he turned this way and that urging the players onwards. Contrasts were made as the music quietened with a nod to the opening movement and slow build to the triumphant finish with horns blazing.

Mahler’s music may have shocked the Golden Age traditionalists, and the first performance of this symphony was not well received, but here Søndergård and the RSNO’s innovative approach made it sound fresh and full of life, a very promising start to the orchestra’s new season.