Thomas Søndergård & RSNO - Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Der Rosenkavalier Suite - The Herald

Composers can be sometimes self-effacing, but conductors who are less than confident in their own abilities are an unknown species. Richard Strauss was never one to hide his light under a bushel and to make the ego-feast that is Ein Heldenleben your first recording as music director is something of a statement.

As it happens, Thomas Sondergard’s first RSNO disc for Linn Records has appeared at exactly the same time as the release of another new recording of the same work, as Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philarmonic begin a Strauss project for Lawo Classics. With his extensive back-catalogue, Petrenko’s version is as fine as you might expect. It was actually recorded in the Norwegian capital some 18 months before the RSNO version, and is coupled with the best known of the Stauss tone poems, Also sprach Zarathustra, and produced by Grammy-winning and Edinburgh University-educated John Fraser.

To my ears, however, the Sondergard version has rather more drama about it. With Linn’s Philip Hobbs at the desk, it seems to pack a bigger punch from the opening portrait of the The Hero, and the RSNO’s horns and brass – surely currently the best in the band’s history – are substantially responsible for that. The playful picture of music critics (The Hero’s Adversaries) that follows has rather more light and shade, and when it comes to the picture of the composer’s wife, Pauline, in the third section (The Hero’s Companion), the solo violin of Maya Iwabuchi seems to communicate the skittishness that was an essential part of her character more directly than the Oslo Phil’s leader Elise Barnes, although her playing is also beautiful.

It is part of the wider dramatic colour of the RSNO recording that the offstage brass at the start of The Hero’s Battlefield sounds a very long way off – perhaps somewhere near Glasgow Cathedral in relation to their colleagues’ Killermont Street location – but that is a the only point at which the balance goes awry.

The coupling on the Linn disc is the Der Rosenkavalier Suite, and could perhaps be taken as a nod towards the conductor’s stated desire to explore operatic repertoire.

The Herald
13 May 2019