The choice of Beethoven’s mighty Fifth Symphony to round off the first subscription digital season of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was a bold stamp of success celebrating the completion of this series of filmed performances from their Glasgow Centre. Lockdown and travel difficulties have called for last minute changes to programmes, but the orchestra has succeeded in delivering a substantial programme during difficult times. This final concert was filmed in mid-December, just weeks before restrictions tightened separating the orchestra from their Danish music director Thomas Søndergård.

Thomas Søndergård conducts the RSNO
© Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Happily, forces were united and for the second time in six months, George Walker’s Lyric for Strings featured in a Glasgow performance. Like Barber’s Adagio written a few years earlier, Walker’s Lyric for Strings is an adaptation of a string quartet movement with depth-enhancing double bass addition. A tonal piece of deep solace, its lyrical lines are beautiful and solemn. Søndergård brought out every yearning nuance from his players, his relaxed approach at one with the apparent simplicity, never forcing the pace but detailed when the piece built phrase over sighing phrase to a climax before fading away. It was a delight to hear this again.

Travel restrictions prevented Edgaras Montvidas taking part but provided an opportunity for Nicky Spence to step in and tackle Britten’s dreamy Les Illuminations. One of the advantages of digital performance is the chance for performers to introduce the music, here both Søndergård and Spence spoke about a happy rehearsal journey of discovery full of inspirational challenge, while double bass player Paul Sutherland explained how astonishing Britten’s music is, especially if you sit on Aldeburgh’s pebble beach for a while and let the mind wander. 

Les Illuminations is a setting of nine of Arthur Rimbaud’s wondrous prose poems capturing a young man’s thoughts of love and disillusionment often with a sinister edge. Søndergård’s configuration of the socially distanced players around him so that he was conducting in the centre of a U shape somehow heightened the intensity of string playing. The result was a genuinely arresting performance, the strings buzzing like bees in a box with nervous organic energy, restless, exciting and dangerously edgy when let loose, very much a young composer’s playground. Nicky Spence threw himself into this performance, painting vivid pictures in a chamber piece he loves, written by his favourite composer. Splendidly big voiced in the opening Fanfare and Villes, Spence's singing smouldered with passion in Antique against a soaring violin and strummed strings. Impressive in storytelling in Being Beauteous and dominating in Parade, the tenor was most touching with his soft singing in Départ, the strings playing over the fretboards as the music softly ended.

Nicky Spence
© Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Finally to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, principal flautist Katherine Bryan pointing out that it was the first big symphony with piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones. Søndergård brought his own interpretation making us reassess and listen anew to music we know well. Taking the opening at a fair lick, he kept the detail very tight creating excitement with his unexpected micro changes in dynamics and accent. The RSNO is not a period instrument band and while hardstick timpani and natural trumpets added authentically delicious rasps and thunks, I wondered why the horn players were using modern instruments as it made for a curious mix. 

That said, this was a thrilling performance full of clear playing, Søndergård calmly opening the strings out like a flower in the Andante, but encouraging gritty playing with bite in the Scherzo. Taking the players right down to a mesmerising hush for the bassoon solo, the crescendo into the finale was shattering. The final Allegro was joyous, full of contrasts, Søndergård playing and catching the beat, and again taking the players to a soft mouse tiptoe before the final race to the finish with trombones and piccolo getting their moments to shine.

The RSNO has just announced an extension of Thomas Søndergård's contract as Music Director, which is very exciting news for players and audiences alike.

This performance was reviewed from the RSNO video stream