This concert revolved around two great “lasts”: Tchaikovsky’s final work, and Mozart’s final piano concerto. In an age of slimmed down orchestras and period performances, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra does a great job of playing Mozart as a slimmed down symphony orchestra in a modern style. There’s perceptible vibrato in the strings but, in the slimmed down format they adopted here, the violin sound had a breezy lightness to it that was very attractive, helped by the unapologetically pacy tempo adopted by conductor Thomas Søndergård. Furthermore, Søndergård placed the winds in the middle of the strings rather than behind them, giving a delicious tautness to the blend, and demonstrating that he isn’t a one-size-fits-all conductor. In short, the orchestral picture showed the best of modern Mozart while learning lessons from the HIP brigade, and was all the better for it.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

Steven Osborne is not only a regular collaborator with the RSNO, but he is this season’s Artist in Residence, and at the keyboard he took a similar approach to the orchestral team, playing with a conversational style that suited both the music and the approach very well. In particular, his way with the gorgeous Larghetto was a delight; beautifully judged, exquisitely delicate and deliciously melancholic. I know it’s not Mozart’s swansong, let alone his valediction; but I was happy to believe the myth when I heard it played like this.

All such mellifluousness was forgotten for their red hot reading of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Søndergård embraced the music’s often violent energy, the first movement’s main theme sounding edgy and incisive, before unleashing a biting fugato in the development and a hair-raising climax underpinned by volcanic brass. The second movement was clipped, excitingly phrased and utterly individual, while remaining distinctly con grazia, and the quicksilver march featured string colours that shifted as rapidly as a hyperactive kaleidoscope.

Conversely, however, the slower music sounded less comfortable. The symphony’s opening, for example, felt like a cursory trot-through, and the first movement’s lyrical second theme felt rushed, the edges just a bit too sharply contoured. Søndergård fixed this by the finale, however, producing something not just moving but also very controlled, both in terms of the pacing and the intensity of the string sound.

Schreker’s Nachtstück came from a completely different universe, one from the same fin-de-siècle world of Mahler and Berg with heady textures and heavily perfumed clouds of sound. However, it avoided the intoxication you’d find in Verklärte Nacht or Gurre-Lieder, and in fact had the clarity of musical invention that you’d more readily associate with Korngold. It got a surprisingly translucent performance here, with well-moulded textures, clear lines of argument and flashes of colour from the winds and brass sitting alongside lovely washes of string sound. I can’t imagine how I’d manage a whole evening of it if watching the full opera of Die Ferne Klang, but one day I’d be willing to find out.

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