The pre-concert talk is a firm favourite with many RSNO regulars. Situated in what feels like an impromptu chapel near the Upper Circle Bar, this 25-minute exploration attracts a congregation which spills well beyond the hundred or so seats laid out. Soon to rejoin the ranks of the first violins, Ursula Heideker Allen interviewed two of the evening’s key figures: RSNO Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Søndergård, and the composer of the opening piece, B. Tommy Andersson. Speaking excellent English with Germanic–Scots, Danish and Swedish accents respectively, the trio discussed Søndergård's transition from recovering percussionist to self-taught conductor before moving onto consider Andersson’s 2009 work The Garden of Delights – this title being one you Google at your peril, I was delighted to hear directly from the source.

B. Tommy Andersson © Peter Knutson
B. Tommy Andersson
© Peter Knutson

The work is based on Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, without being a panel-by-panel depiction. Although unmistakably tonal, there is such a energetically Boschian cornucopia involved that the sound world put me in mind of Ives with, perhaps, touches of Chavez or Revueltos. The impressive RSNO horns were featured extensively here for the first time in what was to be a busy evening. I recall my attention being held throughout but, due to the nature of the content, cannot now summon much of the work. Is this a bad thing? I’d like to believe that the Old Grey Whistle Test protocol, requiring listeners to emerge, melodies intact in their memories, has been left behind. I would, however, love another opportunity to revisit this piece.

Mention musical recycling and Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are often cited. However, Mahler was no stranger to compositional conservation. His 1884 Blumine (What the wild flowers tell me), which began life as incidental music for Der Trompeter von Säckingen, spent a short time in his Symphony no. 1. It survives as a stand-alone work. The elegant and delicate phrasing of this early pastoral idyll was beautifully articulated by the RSNO. Guest principal trumpet Robin Totterdell, the only brass player on stage at that moment, excelled in the solo role.

That one of the melodies of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer also appears in the opening movement of his First Symphony can possibly be forgiven when one considers that this short and very personal song cycle sets his own text. Prompted by the end of a tempestuous relationship, Mahler faced the obvious problem of how to avoid monothematic misery across the four songs. This he cleverly achieved through a mixture of false hopes and joyful moods against which his own gloom could be contrasted. Possibly the most poignant of these occurs in the second song, “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” (“This morning as I walked across the field”). The narrator, supported by the most delicate orchestration, twice asks if he might expect his own happiness to begin. Each forlorn speculation is echoed by a solo oboe phrase, tenderly delivered in this performance by guest principal Juan Pechuán Ramírez. We sense that scenery will not guarantee happiness. The RNSO and Søndergård made the most of Mahler’s lovely trademark orchestral features: paired woodwind phrases, tension-producing dominant pedal notes on the harp, sensitively shaped appoggiatura cadences. Baritone Roderick Williams offered an impressively emotive yet unforced account. I was struck by his still body language; arms by his side; no extraneous movement. Noting from the programme that Williams has a wealth of operatic experience, I imagine that this literally disarming posture is a conscious choice for concert performance. I found the notion of trusting the drama to be conveyed solely by the music quite appealing. With a lovely, rich lower register and a calm ascent to the work’s many high notes, Williams’ expressive palate was sufficiently charged to bring this off. The warm response of the audience suggests that he hit the spot.

To present the three-note stem cell which will inform listening for an entire symphony might seem like a cold way to begin a work. However, I find the introduction to Sibelius’ 1902 Symphony no. 2 in D major one of the warmest, most welcoming openings in the repertoire. The RSNO string sound was lovely. Moreover, the orchestra’s shaping of Sibelius’ organic process of growth was such that, when the fully-grown themes arrived, I felt as though I’d written them myself and they were being played exactly as I’d hoped. This ability to inculcate inevitability without predictability is the sign of winning composition, interpretation and performance. The brass section excelled in the joyous Finale and, in the Vivacissimo, the entire orchestra played as though possessed. For some reason, the Usher Hall was not nearly as full as it has been in recent weeks. Whatever it was that kept regulars away, I hope it was worth missing this winning performance.

****1