Music review: RSNO: The Golden Age of Vienna, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Karen Cargill's lower register was the magic ingredient in Berg's Seven Early Songs
Karen Cargill's lower register was the magic ingredient in Berg's Seven Early Songs
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The RSNO’s season opener marked the first of three cracking programmes focusing on the Golden Age of Vienna: at their heart the music of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, under music director Thomas Søndergård. Friday’s first taster coupled Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan and Mahler’s First Symphony, both first performed in 1889, both seething in the musical turbulence of their time.

RSNO: The Golden Age of Vienna, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

With Strauss’ opening bars came swift realisation that Søndergård was not out for cheap thrills. More a sense of keeping one’s powder dry in the famous skyward launch of the opening flourish, latent energy contained in its excitable precision. What followed – the RSNO strings on red hot form – played more to the intricacies of texture and power of restraint, so that the ultimate surge arrived with the mightiest impact, chillingly capitulated by that deafening, traumatised silence and subdued homeward resignation.

Again, in the Mahler, the big picture won the day. A slow-burning opening movement – crying out for slightly edgier woodwind colourings – blossomed in time; the demonised waltzing of the second movement crackled with clarity and fire; Margarida Castro’s precision-tooled double bass solo struck a haunting preface to the gaunt Jewishness of the funeral march, the finale immediately driven with brazen inevitability towards its frenzied peroration.

For Berg’s Seven Early Songs, the mahogany warmth of mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s lower register was the magic ingredient, molten and otherworldly, if occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. She later led an impromptu audience “Happy Birthday” to a surprised, but tickled, Søndergård. Ken Walton