Music review: RSNO, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Britten’s War Requiem presents a mighty challenge, but Thomas Søndergård guided the RSNO through a memorable performance in Glasgow, writes David Kettle

RSNO & Thomas Søndergård, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

Time was when an outing for Britten’s powerful pacifist War Requiem would be a rare and special event – hardly surprising, with the gargantuan forces it demands. Now, however, the piece seems to have something of a regular Remembrance slot in the musical year. Rare it may no longer be, but there was no doubting that Thomas Søndergård’s War Requiem with the RSNO was special, above all in its moving balance between vivid, powerful playing and an eloquent delivery of the work’s texts from the Latin Requiem mass and the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen.

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Søndergård drove the main orchestra hard, with brisk tempos and switchbacks though superbly controlled swerves in mood, even if there could perhaps have been a bit more snarl to the piece’s angrier music. His 12-piece chamber orchestra – drawn mainly from RSNO principals – was on another level entirely, supplying bitingly dramatic backdrops for Owen’s verse from the two male singers.

The RSNO and Thomas Søndergård PIC: Sally Jubb
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Tenor Stuart Jackson wasn’t feeling his best, we’d been warned, and though his delivery was understandably on the quiet side, it was crystal clear and delivered with bracing conviction, especially moving in the tearful closing "Strange Meeting”. His baritone counterpart Benjamin Appl had a gorgeously golden tone but one that varied little from poem to poem, though soprano Susanne Bernhard delivered Britten’s declamatory lines thrillingly from within the orchestra. The RSNO Chorus didn’t always seem entirely at ease in Britten’s gnarly choral writing and were sometimes disappointingly hushed as a result.

But the RSNO Youth Chorus – singing offstage from the corridor behind the dress circle, joined by chamber organist Mark Hindley – provided a wonderfully otherworldly, distant commentary on the bloody carnage being described on stage, with a winning mix of richness and purity. A memorable and – yes – special performance.