Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Thomas Søndergård at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – Sibelius 6 & Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony – Kari Kriikku plays Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto

Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Magnus Lindberg
Clarinet Concerto
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Kari Kriikku (clarinet)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Thomas Søndergård

Reviewed by: Gregor Tassie

Reviewed: 7 March, 2015
Venue: Main Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Scotland

Thomas SøndergårdPhotograph: © Andy Buchanan

The Dane Thomas Søndergård is in his third season as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and has left many wondering why he doesn’t spend more time in the north, yet Scotland’s loss is very much Wales’s gain (at BBC National Orchestra of Wales) as every concert under his direction has been outstanding in quite different repertoire. However this particular evening led to some mishaps, perhaps not of his making. Certainly the unusual programming raised one’s eyebrows – to start with one of Sibelius’s most complex scores suggested a lack of insight in the orchestra’s planning department.

Søndergård scorns the now-popular dress of a Mao-style tunic; he favours the traditional coat and tails and his stick technique is admirable as he revealed in Sibelius’s Sixth. The almost weeping, mournful opening invokes the polyphony of Palestrina, and it was beautifully played by the strings, almost rhapsodic in part, and the entries by guest-oboist Christopher Cowie and by flautist Katherine Bryan were peculiarly enigmatic conjuring imagery of frozen seascapes. The entrance of the harp introduced enchanting interplay between the woodwinds, and brass, yet sobriety returned with the low strings. The oboe rather plaintively opened the second movement, and the harsh twists in tempo evoked a Nordic landscape, and the scherzo-like third was marvellously propelled. It was in the finale that things became unstuck, yet Søndergård managed to get it all together before the close. If the audience responded well to this dark work, the conductor looked decidedly unhappy as he walked off.

Kari KriikkuPhotograph: Marco Borggreve

Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto (2002) is a progression from the composer’s early period when he wrote in the musique concrete style and was influenced equally by Boulez and Stravinsky. This piece is influenced rather by folk-music, which has led it to be among his more popular works. Kari Kriikku has played it more than sixty times. Here he unleashed a fantastic display of every possible pitch that a clarinet can play … and more; it was difficult to comprehend how he could manage to achieve such unconventional sounds. Kriikku states that “the Clarinet Concerto is a kind of history of our friendship and musical collaboration, especially when Magnus quotes his own earlier clarinet pieces in it… The soloist also has to understand all the different musical styles that the Concerto includes – every aesthetic … has to be taken to the edge.” The Finnish musician proved a weird and quirky presence, gesticulating wildly, kicking up and sometimes spinning oddly to the orchestra. His improvised cadenza towards the end was unbelievable for the high and low notes; at one thought one’s ears would burst with the intensity of his playing. This was a fantastic performance.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony was performed here just a few weeks ago (in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh by the St Petersburg SO and Alexander Dmitriev) and is always exciting to hear. Certainly the opening bars on bassoon and the grim, tragic lines from the low strings immediately invokes the darkness of this masterpiece; in particular it was the strings which proved the most gifted performers in this introductory Adagio, the shocking shift to Allegro non troppo excellently focussed by Søndergård. There was fine play from the woodwinds and an especially stirring contribution from trombonist Dávur Juul Magnusson at the close with an invocation of desperate resignation. The irregular 5/4 waltz-like second movement was beautifully played, the trio sounding ominous with its murky strokes on timpani. The Scherzo can often sound like a great celebratory march, yet it can be foretelling death with its dreadful brass chorale. The nimbleness required from the strings was superbly executed, just lacking a little the passion of Russian musicians. Søndergård held the line marvellously well in the slow finale, Adagio lamentoso, and brought the doom-laden work to a devastating conclusion.

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