In many ways Brahms and Strauss are opposites. One sought the music of the future with his avant garde operas and orchestral works that broke the bounds of traditional form; the other made it his life’s work to develop and fulfil the ancient musical structures that he so loved and to bring them alive in a 19th-century context.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

However, there’s more of a link than first meets the eye, something that goes deeper than the mere fact that both are giants of the Austro-German musical world. For one thing, Strauss loved to conduct the music of Brahms. He described Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as “an enrichment of our musical art”, adding “one must simply listen in humility over and over again, and admire.”

Thomas Søndergård sees the link too. His Royal Scottish National Orchestra concerts this season have combined Brahms and Strauss really successfully, pairing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with Strauss’ Heldenleben back in March. The link has never been explicitly explored, and I guess you could consider it a little random, but when the music is so good there’s no real cause to complain.

And good it certainly is. Getting a pianist of the calibre of Kirill Gerstein to play a work as little known as Strauss’ early Burleske is largesse indeed, and Gerstein brought to it a touch of class that it (arguably) didn’t deserve. Most notable was its sense of lightness and its dance-like character, something Gerstein accentuated throughout (and made explicit in his choice of a Chopin waltz for an appropriate encore). Even the fistfuls of notes at the start felt airy and magical, and the orchestral texture had a sheen and momentum that rivalled the waltzes of Rosenkavalier. This felt like the young Strauss cocking a snook, and the regular sideways snipes were full of character. I especially liked the passage just before the coda where the piano quietly calmed the ferocious timps, followed by a cadenza laced with irony and an ending that seemed to vanish delightfully upwards.

Moving from this apprentice work to the fully fledged maturity of Rosenkavalier, the first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the sound. Der Rosenkavalier is a work that swoops, swirls and intoxicates, and this performance of Strauss’ own suite did all those things, coming at us from what sounded like all directions and blazing with confidence at every turn, be it in those erotically frenzied horns, the slivery gleam of the presentation of the rose, or the rambunctious humour of Ochs’ waltzes.

That colour was put to use every bit as effectively in Brahms, in what was a really super performance of the First Symphony. This was old-school, big-boned, unashamedly symphonic Brahms, and was all the better for it. The debate about Brahms interpretation has been galvanised most recently by Robin Ticciati’s period-influenced performances of the symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which have their own benefits. For me, though, I’ll take my Brahms like this any day, thank you very much. The first movement’s introduction was unafraid to be slow, a wailing lament on silky violins, unfolding over throbbing timps, before giving way to an urgent, thrusting Allegro. The middle movements were free-flowing and light on their feet, before a finale that featured a horn solo of glorious confidence and string tone of mahogany richness for the main theme. The orchestral texture was beautifully constructed, with noble string tone, clean winds and substantial brass tone underpinning the whole. Søndergård embraced the symphony for the majestic statement that it is, keeping something in store for the exhilarating coda and creating a conclusion of proper triumph. The next time he appears on a podium with the RSNO he will be their Music Director. I can’t wait.