Time flies on but our personal memories live with us, perhaps a warm languorous summer evening or keeping cosy indoors in front of a fire in a bitter winter. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s music director Thomas Søndergård invited us to join him on an emotionally intense programme of music depicting vivid memories of times and places, from Bert Sørensen’s childhood landscapes through a journey of love and loss from Berlioz and rounding off with an astonishing performance of a favourite Sibelius symphony.

Catriona Morison
© Andrew Low

To a small boy looking through his window, the flat Zealand landscape seems infinite with a tree and a cow drawing long shadows in the evening light.  Bert Sørensen’s Evening Land started with leader Maya Iwabuchi playing a soft folk melody, slowly taken up by hauntingly mellow strings, dreamy and strange. A middle section was another view, this one into bustling New York, the rattle of muted brass suggesting traffic before waves of cacophony took over, the filmic music taking whole sections off at new wayward tangents with the energy of a coiled spring. Søndergård brought order to the pungent chaos, carefully taming the vivid frenzy. A soft oboe solo brought us back to the lone violin as the music slowly drifted into a deep rural silence.

Berlioz married the actress Harriet Smithson (of Symphonie fantastique fame) but the relationship had already cooled when he arranged six songs by his friend, poet Théophile Gautier, for piano and voice Les Nuits d’été. Over the years, Berlioz orchestrated his songs, giving us the well-loved orchestral suite of romantic vignettes. Mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison gave a mesmerising, dramatic performance, completely inhabiting the role of each song, her warm timbre and mature shaping of phrases creating an immense presence. Turning on a sixpence from a bright and coquettish Villanelle to a melancholic Le Spectre de la rose she stood tall, leant back and opened her voice out gloriously to tell the story of a rose pinned to a beautiful woman at a ball, Morison ending wistfully, holding the magic. Søndergård balanced his forces sensitively, allowing them to swell out in passionate moments but never overwhelming his singer even with Morison in her darkest, lower register. 

Sibelius’ Second Symphony was composed partly in Italy, but the music  is inexorably linked to Finnish landscapes. Indeed, the Finns adopted the grandiose finale as a patriotic piece in the quest for independence. It is a concert hall favourite, but Søndergård and the orchestra gave a performance as if this was a newly discovered score with phrasing and dynamics detailing far corners of the work. The string playing sounded fantastic with the great sweeping arcs contrasting the winter forest darkness with the sparkling sunlight on snow and ice. The brass chords in the first movement were carefully grown, Søndergård building up the drama, weaving in intensity and balancing his forces with care. Steady double bass and cello pizzicato with bassoons set the mysterious tone in the second movement bristling with a restless undercurrent in the development. Pinpoint accurate string playing in the devilishly fast runs in the third movement was tempered with lovely solo spots from the oboe and cello and characterful woodwinds. The finale was carefully managed, Søndergård building excitement, leaning over the violins to urge them on, and my goodness, it felt that they all played for him with every last bit of energy. The final journey from the minor with flutes topping final dramatic swoops was thrilling as the brass blazed and the music finally resolved to the major. 

This was a spectacular evening of high drama to remember, and a fitting farewell to violinist Jane Reid, making her final appearance after 43 years with the orchestra.