In a brief preamble to the middle concert in this season’s Age Of Vienna series from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conductor Thomas Søndergård referred to that special surge of reinvigorating energy experienced after a sauna and plunge into the chilly Baltic. In today’s deeply troubled world, he suggested that this strong elemental feeling perfectly reflected the concert’s Strauss and Mahler pairing, drawing on the composers’ wisdom and philosophy where sometimes we need music alone to speak in a powerful natural resonance. The orchestra, inspired by Søndergård’s infectious vigour gave us an astonishing evening of high drama from Vienna’s Golden Age.

Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

Scored for a huge orchestra and organ, Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra takes scenes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s controversial book following Zarathustra’s journey of self-discovery into the mountains and his return. The famous sunrise opening, with the low C major soft shimmer in the double basses and organ pedal's deep rumble with contrabassoon, was electrifying, Søndergård’s wide confident flowing gestures setting the dramatic tone from the first bars. In nine almost continuous sections, as the music became more chromatic, exciting contrasts were made, the yearning strings so powerful in Of the Great Longing with the whole ensemble relishing the sweep of this big music. The Song of the Grave was deeply mysterious, organically growing from a small string ensemble building momentum into the fugue-like Of Science and Learning and climaxing with full forces in The Convalescent.  Leader Maya Iwabuchi’s jaunty solo was beautiful, the orchestra dancing along with Søndergård keeping the performance dynamic and surprising. At several points it felt as if he had thrown a tune like a ball into the air, almost making us gasp as he caught it and moved on. The big church bell in E sounded wonderful, tolling boldly and ethereally tailing off, as did the piece, refusing to resolve as Strauss’ soft trademark flutes in B alternated with the double basses in C.

After his monumental Eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand, Mahler was diagnosed with the serious heart condition that would kill him and, in the same year, he lost his daughter Maria. He found solace in the words of Hans Bethge’s Chinese Flute which struck home, tying together the wonder of the natural world and man’s fleeting part in it. Das Lied von der Erde is a superb collection of six songs sung alternately by tenor and mezzo accompanied by an orchestra musically illustrating the narrative, richly peppered with solo performances, Mahler using the large forces in a chamber fashion with sometimes only a few players being required. Søndergård’s balance occasionally overwhelmed Simon O’Neill’s clear high tenor, passionate but straining a little in the drinking songs as the music surged around him, more sure-footed in the playful scherzo Of Youth

Jane Irwin’s rich mezzo was almost made to sing this piece, her clear voice filling the Usher Hall, deliciously dark in her lower register opening out to a vibrant top. In a vivid, perfectly phrased, translucent performance, you could almost see the autumn fog and touch the frosty grass in The Lonely One in Autumn and feel the golden sun’s rays in Of Beauty. Best of all was The Farewell, Irwin’s voice so perfectly describing the setting sun and evening shadows as she awaits her friend to bid him a final farewell, and then doomed to wander as spring arrives. Søndergård’s colouring from his players was luminous, the texts beautifully illustrated by fine solo work particularly from the oboe and cello, with a finely judged ensemble from radiant strings to bright magical woodwind and sensitive brass. Mahler thought the piece gloomy, but as the celesta’s twinkling broken chords brought us softly back to C major, I found it moving and life-affirming. Søndergård held an extended silence, prolonging the moment, the exhilaration of his Baltic plunge a fading memory.