No stranger to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as a guest conductor, Thomas Søndergård is now getting into his stride as the recently appointed Music Director. When he conducted at the most recent Cardiff Singer of the World, he was so taken by the winner, Scottish mezzo soprano Catriona Morison that he invited her to sing Ravel’s Schéhérazade.   Glasgow trained Morison caught the judges’ eye by the way she completely inhabits the roles she sings making her a perfect choice to interpret Ravel’s luminous and sensually charged piece.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

Fascinated by Shéhérazade, Ravel set three Tristan Klingsor poems in a song cycle for mezzo-soprano. Morison, in a pre-concert talk, explained that wanderlust, or yearning to travel is the opposite of homesickness, the subject of the first and longest song, Asie. Her gorgeously rich burnished voice told her tale of yearning to travel to see Asia and the East in all its human detail, the orchestra filling in the colours vividly in a lush dreamy accompaniment, becoming darker as execution of the innocent and death are briefly visited. La Flûte enchantée was an exquisite duet between Morison and Katherine Bryan, principal flautist, the story of a servant girl who cannot meet her lover, but hears his music through an open window, each note caressing her cheek, Søndergård’s sinuous string players adding to the heady mood. The erotic charge continued in the last song where the shock of instant powerful spark of attraction to a passing stranger is spurned, as the figure wanders off indifferently with hips swinging, the flute and lower strings kindling desire exquisitely coloured by a cor anglais. Although Søndergård did his best to keep his large forces at bay, Morison’s heartfelt performance was overwhelmed occasionally when in her lower range, but it was a beautiful and mesmerising piece.

To begin, Søndergård  announced that the performance of Grieg’s two Peer Gynt Suites would be re-ordered, so we got the complete range of the Scandinavian folk tale in eight vignettes from a light and delicate Morning, to the fearsome In the Hall of the Mountain King. Søndergård managed the changes of mood perfectly with feeling for detail, drawing us right into the music with his phrasing and changing dynamics. I was impressed with the string playing all evening, but the solemn Death of Åse was especially arresting as it faded to nothing. The Arabian Dance and Anitra’s Dance were sprightly and light with colourful woodwinds, and the Mountain King had a slow comical gait at first, Søndergård carefully speeding it up to a thrilling finish.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 1 in D minor had such a disastrous first performance that it stopped him composing for a number of years, the work remaining unpublished in his lifetime. With the orchestra adding extra brass and strings, topping up the double basses to an impressively solid rank of eight, Søndergård used his forces effectively to paint the work’s many shifting moods making this a compelling, vivid performance. The strings played wonderfully, the thick opening solemn downbows setting the scene, then, almost as if possessed following the bass drum announcing the opening Allegro, raw open strings in the mix adding a devilish edge to the excitement. It would not be Rachmaninov without soaring romantic themes, delivered here with richness as the cellos and basses added a mournful underpinning. The clarity of detail from all players brought out warmth and lightness in the second movement, continuing into the third as the horns sounded an undercurrent of unease. Sensitive solo work from the clarinet, two violins and cello added colour as the basses built tension with a long soft pedal point. Finally, the bright brass fanfares heralded a spectacular helter-skelter ending, with time for a delightful oboe solo before crashes from the gong brought the players into line for a stately finale. Søndergård and the RSNO look to be a partnership to watch.

****1