Review: Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Season Opener – Strauss and Mahler

Published

Credit: RNSO

Charles Pring
Writer

Cue rapturous applause as Thomas Søndergård leads his orchestra through the first RSNO spectacle of the new season.

A lively atmosphere permeates the foyer of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, all abuzz with the usual hustle and bustle of an opening night. Once both the orchestra and the audience have found their seats, we are welcomed with a brief speech by conductor Thomas Søndergård. He muses on the contrasting desires of youth and old age, and how these contradictions are captured by the night’s featured composers, Strauss and Mahler.

Without further ado, the evening explodes into life with the exuberant opening bars of Strauss’ Don Juan, Op.20. Written by a young Richard Strauss at the age of 24, Don Juan first premiered in November 1889, and helped establish Strauss as a serious name on the international scene.

The tale of the infamous philanderer Don Juan is of course well established, and indeed serves as the subject of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, but Strauss’ work derives its main influence from Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau’s 1844 reimagining of the story, in which Don Juan’s seductions are simply the actions of a man searching for female perfection.

Much like its titular character, Strauss’ piece is full of vigour and dynamism, and Don Juan’s confidence and swagger are matched by the works’ buoyant harmony and dazzling virtuosic passages, as it alternates between fearless ebullience and irresistible romance. Don Juan runs to roughly 18 minutes, but each minute flies past until suddenly, a fatal blow is inflicted upon Don, and he and the orchestra fade coldly away.

Next up, following an animated round of applause, are Seven Early Songs by Austrian composer Alban Berg, all written between 1905 and 1908. Berg was a student of the composer Arnold Schoenberg – famous for his 12 tone technique, an influential deconstruction of traditional western harmony – and in these early works are clear evidence of Schoenberg’s atonal ideas beginning to influence the young Berg.

During Berg’s songs, we are joined by the lovely mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland here in Glasgow. Despite Cargill’s dulcet tones however, Berg’s compositions fail to reach the heights of Strauss’ opener, and no one in attendance seems overly upset when the seventh song reaches its conclusion.

The brief interval allows concert reviewers a chance to purchase a program, before seats are re-occupied in anticipation of Mahler’s Symphony No1 in D Major (Titan) – the main course of this classical serving.

It is presumably no coincidence that Mahler’s first symphony also debuted in November 1889, and also that Mahler, too, was 24 when he began work on it. That’s about as far as the similarities between the two pieces extend though, as Don Juan and Titan could barely begin more differently from each other. Whereas Strauss opens with majestic, roof-raising fanfare, Mahler commences with calm restraint that manifests into growing unease, before a warmer harmonic centre is established and the first movement progresses.

Whereas Don Juan recalls numerous dalliances, Symphony No. 1 was inspired by the painful demise of a relationship in Mahler’s own life – a demise evident in both the structure and tonality of his work. Any of the emotions one might associate with love and heartbreak can be found in the composition, from the uplifting second movement’s stomping Ländler (a rural predecessor to the Waltz), to the almost dirge-like funeral procession of the third movement.

But all hope is not lost for young Mahler, and the symphony ends with a triumphant rejection of past miseries, to the tune of a proud, optimistic fanfare. Cue rapturous applause!

All in all, the evening is a resounding success. Søndergård leads his charges with great passion and control, and the orchestra in return pour over every note as if the fate of planet Earth itself depends on their doing so. The Royal Concert Hall is of course a treat of a venue, and I cannot wait to see the RSNO in action again.