This would have been the bumper opening weekend of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe which normally sees the city bustling with lively performers and eager visitors. This August the streets are eerily quiet as gatherings are prohibited in these strange days. When theatres are dark, it is usual for a single ghost light to be left burning centre stage, so taking a lead from this tradition, the late evening skies above the city have been lit up with ghostly moving shafts of light to let the world know that the festivals are still very much with us in spirit. The International Festival released a series of filmed events themed “The Light Shines On”, here Thomas Søndergård making his Edinburgh Festival debut in a programme of Mahler with a much reduced RSNO.

Thomas Søndergård
© Edinburgh International Festival

In an empty Festival Theatre the players sat socially distanced from each other on a well-extended stage, joined by festival regular Karen Cargill for three songs from Mahler’s wistful Rückert-Lieder. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft was an exercise in beautiful restraint, Cargill’s mellow timbre melding perfectly with Søndergård’s players weaving interlaced phrases. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder was lively and animated, Cargill in vibrant storytelling mode, but most engaging was the substantial Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Cargill’s languorous phrasing and a moving cor anglais solo creating a warm ethereal mood. Perfect phrasing and balance from the players and the thrill as Cargill’s voice opened up in the central section produced a hauntingly soulful performance.

I have heard it said over the summer that “it will be a long time before we hear a Mahler symphony again” as emerging music making has been limited to small ensembles and associated repertoire. What a delight then to hear RSNO and Søndergård tackle Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in a brave arrangement by Klaus Simon for reduced forces. Though we may have missed the sheer heft of a full orchestra, the smaller number of players allowed a sharper focus and Søndergård to take a distinctive approach. No trombones or tuba here, but a single trumpet and two horns shouldering all the brass work, a piano and harmonium filling in lost structure. The players’ sheer enjoyment of making music together again was wonderful to watch. The lyrical tenor horn solo in the opening Langsam with angular woodwind and dense strings built into a march with swagger, Søndergård playfully holding back the beat at times. Solemn pulses were delicately handled with exquisite soloing, but the climaxes were astonishing for so few players.

RSNO and Thomas Søndergård in an empty Edinburgh Festival Theatre
© Edinburgh International Festival

The journey through the Nachtmusik to the sunrise finale was engrossing, Søndergård coaxing bright sounds from the orchestra, balancing the forces lightly and letting the solos shine and the cowbells raise a smile. I was less convinced by the slightly prepared piano mimicking a mandolin which jarred slightly in timbre, but needs must where space is rationed. The woodwind section, pared back to single instruments apart from two clarinets, threw down a particular challenge to the players involving deft instrument changes as they ably covered all bases. While I missed the exuberance of a full orchestra, and the full punch of a brass section, this performance made up for much by its verve and determination. Indeed, in the final climaxes, all bells and gong in the percussion, I was amazed how few musicians could produce such a full sound.

Finally, this was a film of a performance, captured atmospherically by director Matt Parkin whose shots of the players cleverly flattened some of the distancing. The bright sound quality was superb, balanced perfectly and dimensionally accurate, a thrilling listen. The ever-present empty auditorium behind Søndergård was a reminder of difficult times, but this welcome 90 minutes of Mahler pointed to better things ahead.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.