Morphing the traditional programme format of Overture, Concerto, Symphony into Symphony, Overture, Concerto produced an opening which felt different in many respects. Of course, I use the term Symphony loosely; Strauss' Metamorphosen (1944-45) was simply the evening's most symphonic work, it's raison d'être being thematic development, or metamorphosis. Scored for 23 solo strings, as opposed to the five traditional sections, it required little of a stage whose centre housed concentric arcs of music stands from where the mostly standing ensemble would play. So, the stage remained bare and silent until the players and Søndergård walked on together. Somehow this had a democratic feel.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

In her well-researched pre-concert talk, delivered in a fascinating prosody - equal parts Scots and German – RSNO First Violins' Ursula Heidecker Allen outlined the works' provenance. "In memoriam", written on the score, refers to five German opera houses demolished in World War II by Allied bombing raids, including that of Munich, Strauss' home town. This must have been a hollowing experience for such an operatic composer. Listening to the works' dark opening unfold, eyes already moistening, I found myself wondering if I'd be similarly affected without knowledge of historical background; I felt sure that I would. The work's subsiding harmonies seem laden with loss. One surprising turn, late in the piece, felt knee-weakening. Søndergård's conducting style was fascinating. While he can never be described as "standing back" in any sense, he seemed here more than ever to lean into the ensemble teasing out out lines, literally with his bare hands. Arm movements were balletically fluid, far more than than the presence (or purpose) of a baton would permit. One moment early in the work attested the minimalist belief that the less you have, the more you notice. A single pizzicato note from Principal Double Bass Ana Cordova effortlessly claimed its own place in the dark, bowed string texture. Similarly, dynamics matter a great deal when instrumental colour is limited; gradual and sudden changes were here finely executed.

Following considerable resetting of the stage the second half opened with Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and final Overture to Fidelio. I read with interest in Philip Borg-Wheeler's fine programme note that "unlike the three Leonore Overtures, it uses no actual musical material from the opera itself" – surprising given Beethoven's molecular take on composition. This performance featured some impressive horn playing early in the work and some fine oboe playing by Adrian Wilson who, like Cordova, has recently shifted from Guest Principal status to a more stable seat. As the seven-minute Overture gathered pace there were some rousing syncopations highlighted by the orchestra. While I enjoyed this performance, I puzzled about the programming – itself not a bad thing. I might have been just as happy without the Beethoven, leaving a symmetrical programme wherein either half featured a wartime work illustrating radically different responses to dislocation and loss.

Exiled from, and painfully homesick for, his native Hungary, Bartók was also suffering from leukaemia. However, you'd never guess this from the life-affirming nature of his 1943 Concerto for Orchestra, a Serge Koussetvitzky commission completed in just eight weeks. In Bartók's beloved arch form, the work's five movements joyously prove to be a Concerto for Orchestrator. The concertante showiness one might hope for is perhaps at its most straightforward and sustained in the second movement, Giocoso delle coppie (Game of pairs), which highlighted the RSNO's fine woodwind section: mischievous bassoons, coquettishly articulated, syncopated oboes, lazily laughing clarinets, elegantly flighty flutes who, along with Søndergård, executed the thrilling rallentando. These, in turn, allowed paired, muted trumpets to lead us to the brass Chorale section of the movement, with its noble, seven-note phrases. The woodwind phrases returned decorated, perhaps the most striking example being the bassoons who were accompanied by a highly nimble third bassoon.

The cornerstone third movement, Elegia, featured some lovely flute and piccolo playing en route to the 'big tune' which was delivered with passionate commitment. Like the first and fourth movements, this one featured some fine playing by Guest Principal cor anglais Kenny Sturgeon. When one of my heroes attacks another I feel like the child of divorcing parents. This always strikes me in the fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted Intermezzo) in which Bartók parodies a melody from Shostakovich's wonderful Leningrad Symphony. Nevertheless, the build up to this moment is beautifully written and the accelerando was excellently paced here. The Presto finale is one of the 20th century's great finishers. The strings delivered the mad hoedown energy with infectious zest and RSNO brass really let rip when called upon, especially the wonderful trombone section. 

***11