Thomas Søndergård’s first season as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Music Director has been a real success, as we’ve reviewed in these pages. He has known the orchestra well for years as their Principal Guest, but this season has deepened and developed their relationship in lots of exciting ways. One of the strategic decision he has made is to programme all Mahler's symphonies over his first few seasons. The Sixth is this season’s third and last, and they made it a deeply powerful experience.

Thomas Søndergård © Bjarke Johansen
Thomas Søndergård
© Bjarke Johansen

The most impressive thing was how together it all sounded. The brusque crotchets of the opening march had a terrific bite to them that launched the whole thing with determination and grit in the teeth. That continued through an exhilarating first movement, pausing only for a pastoral interlude that was as well-shaded as it was delicate. The Andante moderato (second) movement, beautifully played, was taken slightly faster than normal, thus giving it a slightly uneasy edge, paving the way appropriately for a Scherzo that was as energetic as it was grotesque while still retaining a touch of the dance to it. It was a demonic dance, though, lolloping its way with a snarl and a grimace, bordering on the vicious at times, be it in the curt strings of the main section or the sleek winds of the Trio.

Søndergård knows the orchestra’s architecture (and psychology) well enough to steer them through this vast symphony with masterful precision. Nowhere is that more necessary than in the sprawling finale, which veers from elated marches through to sickly shimmers by way of a soaring violin line that sounded paler every time it recurred. Again, though, it was the togetherness of the ensemble that was most impressive. Repeatedly, I felt I could sense the shock waves running through the music, from the dark whisper of the tubas, through the harp glissandi up to the sheen on the top of the violins. So powerful was the orchestral playing, like the dark wind chorale or the baleful blaring of all nine horns, that after a while it felt almost tiring to listen, but Søndergård’s agility on the podium kept it from becoming an endurance test, steering us carefully through each landmark. The hammer blows (two of them) unleashed mayhem in the strings, but Søndergård stored up some nobility for the end, holding out a final possibility of hope until the final guillotine cut it off unarguably.

A symphony as all-consuming as this really shouldn’t be programmed alongside anything else. In fact, as I staggered out of the Mahler, I’d almost forgotten that we’d begun the concert with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, which was a waste of an excellent performance. For one thing, the string section was larger than usual for Mozart, giving the music the warmth of a welcoming embrace. The marvellous Ingrid Fliter matched that tone with piano playing as sweet as a glass of condensed milk, and the acidic tinge of the slow movement never lost its beauty, matching seriousness with serenity. Her encore gave us as mellifluous a reading of a Chopin Nocturne as you’ll ever hear.