I’ve long been a huge fan of Thomas Søndergård’s work with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He has been their Principal Guest Conductor for several years now, and he takes over as their Music Director in the 2018-19 season. That’s great news for them. His concerts with them have a bit of extra spark which shows that they love working together, and the synthesis between them has produced some very special evenings in the past.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

That said, tonight’s Scheherazade was a mixed bag. No issues with the orchestral sound, which was big, sweeping and as buoyant as the seascapes they were depicting. The problem came with Søndergård’s overactive tempi, which made the outer movements a speedy, almost cursory trip to the sea. Scheherezade can work well when it’s taken quickly, but the first movement was so rapid that it had more than just Guest Leader Gordan Trajkovic struggling to keep up. The Festival at Baghdad was so manic that it came across as chaotic, and lapses in ensemble suggested they hadn’t had much time to put it all together. All of the fun (and most of the excitement) came in the middle movements, where you really caught the crackle of the drama. The Kalandar Prince started slowly, with a brilliantly brusque bassoon solo, which meant that it had somewhere to go in its central section, complete with hard-edged brass and biting string tremolos; while the string tone for The Young Prince and the Young Princess was gorgeously rich, suffused with an air of sunlit decadence that the central dance leavened but didn’t dispel.

Poulenc's Les Biches was more completely successful because it pointed up Søndergård’s ability to keep competing contrasts in the air at once. The whole suite felt like proper dance music, for one thing, light on its feet and bounceable in its freedom of movement. That was pointed up in the opening Rondeau which was light and springy at the top while retaining a lumbering feeling in the bass and percussion, and several times in the rest of the suite the themes sounded like slightly whacky slapstick, which the orchestra’s Technicolor approach suited very well.

That colour was also deployed to great effect in Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto, here played by their principal cello, Aleksei Kiseliov. Something rather special happens when the concerto soloist is drawn from the ranks of the orchestra – there’s more familiarity, more trust, more of a willing them to succeed – and Kiseliov wrote in tonight’s programme that the RSNO are like a close family that he can trust completely. That meant he felt free to make the concerto his own, and I liked the way that, through the opening downward surge, he kept the sweep but also made it sound sensitive and very cleanly articulated. The long notes of the second theme were seasoned with lots of vibrato but never felt syrupy, and he was happy to retreat into the orchestral texture during the transitions, a sign of that mutual trust in action. Kiseliov isn’t a rock star cellist, and I never got the feeling that he was trying to impose himself on the peace. That’s no bad thing, though, and it’s refreshing to hear some of the little things pointed up, such as the cello’s oh-so-delicate dance with the orchestra during the central Menuet, and the cantabile feeling to the slower melodies in the finale. If his encore (Saint-Saëns’ Swan) was, by contrast, a little too assertive, then it sounded lovely in this arrangement with harp.

***11