First published in the Guardian on 9 March, 2015
There are no cheap thrills from Thomas Søndergård, principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Even in a programme as potentially overwhelming as this — the sensory onslaught of Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s blazing Sixth Symphony — the Dane sticks by his undemonstrative cool. He uses clarity and restraint to set up moments of totally frank expression. The operatic passion of his climaxes is irresistible, and all the more-so for being built without an ounce of sentimentality.
Sibelius called his Sixth Symphony ‘pure cold water’; the performance that opened this concert was on the brink of freezing in the tap. The opening lines were crystal-clear, layer upon layer of icy definition, and Søndergård clinched the unnerving non-drama of the strange passages that follow. He never whacked on colour contrast to score easy points; this was an ephemeral reading that drifted by and spirited away.
Magnus Linberg is one of several Finnish composers deeply influenced by Sibelius’s Sixth, and for all the hectic pizzaz of his Clarinet Concerto there is something similarly ephemeral about its incessant hints and allusions. “He should get a job as a jazz guy,” I heard my neighbour say to his neighbour after this performance, referring to the soloist Kari Kriikku. He and had a point: Kriikku’s easygoing, sinewy virtuosity dazzled and swung. His playing was elusive and puckish as he pied-piped the orchestra to new, increasingly extravagant vistas around every corner.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth was where I longed for more. The tight reign of the march and the unbridled sweep of the finale were hugely enjoyable, but quiet moments needed more intensity; I could see Søndergård leaning into the violas or the violins, yearning for a deeper sound. If he had more time with these players he would surely get it.