As darkness gathers, days shorten and temperatures drop, late autumn can be a time of wistful reflection. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra programmed this concert perfectly with Strauss’s fabulously wistful Four Last Songs at its heart, visiting a menacingly dark Finnish woodland from Sibelius in another last work and finally, Vaughan Williams's reflective Symphony no 5 in D major with a view of Britain, still in the midst of the Second World War but looking ahead to more peaceful times.

Elizabeth Llewellyn
© Shirley Suarez

Strauss Four Last Songs is a showcase work for soprano and large orchestra, rapturous, serene and heart-breaking. Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem Im Abendrot about an elderly couple looking back at their eventful lives, tiring of life’s struggles appealed to Strauss, then in his 80s, as he and his wife Pauline were living a troubled life in exile in Switzerland after the Second World War. Settings of three Hermann Hesse poems followed, but Strauss never lived to see them performed. Elizabeth Llewellyn inhabited every moment of the work, her rich creamy soprano taking us from celebrating the arrival of spring to a glimpse through the door at the end of lives well lived. In live performance the balance between soloist and orchestra is critical, especially as much is set in the soprano’s lower register. Here Martyn Brabbins and the orchestra chose to embed the singer with sweeping gorgeously lush phrasing, which occasionally swamped her lines in the first two poems if you were toward the back of the City Halls (rebalanced by the engineers for the live radio feed). But then Llewellyn opened out gloriously in Beim Schlafengehen, with leader Laura Samuel melting in her solo as Brabbins conjured orchestral velvet from his players. Finally, Llewellyn’s voice soared with the piccolo’s circling larks in a glowing sunset, her absolute love of the work shining like an evening sunbeam.

Vaughan Williams wrote his Fifth Symphony during the Second World War, moving back from the dissonances of his previous symphony toward more pastoral, peaceful imagery. Opening with horn calls, Brabbins summoned up the strings as if emerging from an autumn mist across farmland pastures, his arms creating strange shapes as the music flowed, mellow but with a troubling undercurrent. Woodwinds were bright and as the central tune emerged, there was almost a touch of a brass band in the distance. In the Scherzo, punchy woodwinds and jaunty strings provided a lively interlude as Vaughan Williams played with rhythms until raucous trombone blasts sounded, all swiftly brought back into order by Brabbins. The Romanza is the heart of the work, strings sounding luminous as a soft theme progressed topped by a beautiful cor anglais solo. Vaughan Williams included some early sketches from his Pilgrim's Progress project, Brabbins achieving a delicate dappled shading as cellos took up a passionate theme and violas sighed. There was splendour in the final movement, driven strings and dancing woodwind themes, but a distant turbulence was never far away and the work, dedicated to Sibelius, finished with quiet optimism, searching for peace.

Beginning the evening, Sibelius's Tapiola took us into the dark Karelian forest where Tapio, the woodland creature with a beard of lichen and mossy eyebrows lived. It is rather a bleak work, but the dark November music was never less than thrilling, especially when the growling contrabassoon and bass clarinet underpinned the swirling strings, astringent woodwind and brooding brass. Three flutes briefly brightened the mood, but the piccolo gave a stifled shriek as the six double basses sombrely dug in before an urgent stormy climax. Despite the soft ending in the major, this was so vividly terrifying that I was sure that there were faces in the trees.