Peter Oundjian’s spell in charge of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was a mixed success, but Bruckner was one of his strengths, and he gave very impressive performances of the seventh and eighth symphonies during his tenure. Whether it was thanks to him or thanks to the orchestra, some of that magic still lingers, because this Bruckner Fourth was terrific.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

It sounds like a truism but, more than for many composers, it’s the sound that matters with Bruckner. Any orchestra can play the squiggles on the page, but what really distinguishes a great Bruckner band is that magisterial quality that hovers over and between the notes. However you define it, there was a lot of it tonight, combining majesty with mobility to create a very special sound for this work. It was built from the ground up, with basses that were dark and firm yet also mobile, especially during the architectural underpinnings of the outer movements, moving upwards through chocolaty cellos and velvet violas to violins who shone brightly through the melodies. Those qualities weren’t obvious only in the showpiece moments, like the second movement’s melancholy march, but in lots of other places. Several times I did a double-take at the rich, mahogany nature of the sound when the strings played together, such as the moment in the middle of the finale where they all play the second theme.

Next to that, the lower brass sounded like the swelling bellows of a massive organ, while the trumpets rang out clearly and the horns were like actors in a drama, not only shimmering with beauty but also electric with excitement at moments like the end of the first movement.

Scotland hasn’t heard Thomas Søndergård’s Bruckner before, but he left me hungry for more. He combined an understanding of the music’s massive architecture with attention to detail – I’d never before noticed those cackling clarinets at the end of the scherzo – and a clear sense of direction that delivered a hugely satisfying performance. This was an antidote for those who worry that Bruckner lumbers or goes in circles: here he sounded alive and kicking.

That’s not a natural description of the haunted world of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, but what distinguished this performance was the careful shading of the orchestral sound, from the dusky, wandering violas through to the gravity-defying flights of the violins, soaring through the main theme as though unfettered from earthly bonds. They sang their hearts out while retaining the music’s mood of melancholy, then scaled back to a whisper before the cacophonous chord that marks the movement’s anguished climax, here sounding poetic rather than melodramatic. Again, Søndergård moulded the blocks of sound into a beautiful whole, finishing on a wistful coda that drifted gently upwards.

Søndergård and the RSNO have just come back from a tour of China and they’re heading to the USA in the Spring. They’re going global with the message that this team is world class. We in Scotland have known that for a while.

*****