“Scotland loves Sibelius!” trumpeted an orchestral marketing campaign from several years back. Hmmm, maybe, I thought to myself at the time. That’s partly because you have to be sceptical about any claims that certain music is more popular in certain places, but also because I’ve been a late arrival to Sibelius’ music and there’s still a lot of it that baffles me.

Tabita Berglund
© Nikolaj Lund

However, if Scotland does love Sibelius then much of that is down to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Former Principal Conductor Sir Alexander Gibson was such an enthusiastic champion of the composer’s music that he was awarded Finland’s Sibelius Medal. So that gives the RSNO a pretty impeccable pedigree in this music, and I wasn’t surprised that Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony was by some margin the most successful thing on Tabita Berglund's programme. 

That’s not just because every component sounded terrific, from the gorgeously clean winds of the opening to the super-rich bed of string sound on which it was built, or the shimmering violins, every one of whose semiquavers was precisely articulated. It’s because the whole thing cohered magnificently. Maybe it’s something deep in the orchestra’s DNA, but the whole symphony was anchored in a dark crust of bass sound, with low strings that provided the feeling of gently moving ground, shifting like tectonic plates beneath you.       

Full credit to conductor Berglund for the way in which she controlled the unfolding drama. The first movement moved forwards with gathering swell, like a river surging out to sea, so that the rapids of the coda sounded brilliantly exciting, and the slow movement was beautifully realised, the delicate winds contrasting the opulent sheen on the strings. The famous finale took off like a rocket but, with the emergence of the “swan theme”, broadened and expanded from the basses upwards (those tectonic plates again!), and the final pages were controlled like a slow burn with nothing thrown away too soon.

It was a nice touch to begin the concert with Thea Musgrave’s tribute to Sibelius. Song of the Enchanter is inspired, like so much of Sibelius’ music, by a legend from the Kalevala. It’s a rippling waterscape, beautifully realised by the winds here, with chilly harmonies to remind us of the frozen north and, in the flutes, even a nod to the Fifth Symphony's “swan theme”.

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto began promisingly with some marvellously dark orchestral sound, inky winds and weighty brass bouncing off violins that seemed happiest in their lower registers. The orchestra’s contribution was the most enjoyable thing about this performance, however. Unlike the Sibelius its main problem was its lack of coherence, because soloist Torleif Thedéen seemed set on doing his own thing. His instrumental tone was forceful and dramatic rather than lyrical, even a little chalky in the first movement, so that he didn’t blend well with the orchestra in the outer movements, and it didn’t help that conductor and soloist barely exchanged a glance for most of the piece. Only in the slow movement, and then only in the outer sections, did Thedéen soften his tone sufficiently, almost sounding like a different cellist. Not even the nicely managed melancholic wind-down of the final pages could make up for what felt like a pretty detached performance.

***11