Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

five stars

APOLOGIES to the players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, but I have little to say about their performance of the masterly lean arrangements that Alban Berg made for his Seven Early Songs twenty years after their original composition at the start of the last century. That is because, like everyone’s else in the very well-filled hall, I was mesmerised by the performance of them by our own international mezzo-soprano star, Karen Cargill. It was, as a breathless audience clearly recognised, an enormous privilege to hear these works sung by a performer who is not only at the top of her own game, but in the top echelons of classical voices of our own era. They may have begun life as apprentice pieces by the young composer, but the settings of verse by five different poets, including Hauptmann and Rilke, are a pinnacle of art song and require a performer who is accustomed to scaling such peaks.

For the opening concert of his second season as music director of the RSNO, conductor Thomas Sondergard bracketed the Berg with instrumental works from Secession Vienna. It is an era which, as he told The Herald in an interview on his appointment, holds a particular fascination for him, in visual art and design as well as music. Sondergard made his recording debut with this orchestra with Ein Heldenleben and Richard Strauss’s earlier tone poem, Don Juan, opened this season. Like the symphony that followed in the second half, this sort of big music is self-evidently the RSNO’s job, but it was in the detail of the wind solos as well as the glorious ensemble sound of the strings that the work grabbed attention.

That was even more true of Sondergard’s reading of Mahler 1. It might seem facile to suggest that the First Symphony is a good place for Mahler novices to start, but that was so clearly the case here. Yes, the work is chock-full of tunes, but they look after themselves in the hands of these top players. The job of the conductor is to steer the dynamics of the work, and Sondergard’s control of the balance of the sections in the crescendo at the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second, and later in the layered build up of the finale, was also a masterclass in pacing.