Søndergård Continues His Sibelius Cycle in Cardiff

09/02/2018

Sibelius, Nielsen: Matthew Featherstone (flute), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 8.2.2018. (PCG)

SibeliusKing Christian II Suite, Finlandia, Symphony No.5, Valse triste
Nielsen – Flute Concerto

Thomas Søndergård’s steady traversal of the symphonies of Sibelius with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales here reached the apex of the composer’s most gloriously forthright essay in the medium. The conductor had begun in 2014 with the Seventh, but unless I have unaccountably missed a concert in the series he still has not yet furnished us with his live interpretations of the Third and Fourth. Hopefully, even after he has moved on at the end of the season to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, he will be invited back to Cardiff to complete the cycle. (He has also recorded four of the symphonies with the orchestra in the Hoddinott Hall, although the recordings unfortunately failed to capture the sound of the players, particularly the strings, to best effect.)

Søndergård’s Sibelius is far from traditional (insofar as the composer, always fickle about whose interpretations of his music he preferred at any given time, could be said to have an established ‘tradition’) but time and again he provides insights into the works in a manner that, when one looks at the score, is fully justified by Sibelius’s own instructions. Not that these themselves are invariably infallible. When, in the second movement of the Fifth Symphony, the composer instructs the horns and trombones to play pppp (already a degree quieter than the normal expression of “as quiet as possible”), one wonders what on earth could have possessed him when, four bars later, he adds the further injunction ‘dim possibile‘. The meaning is clear enough, but the manner in which it is expressed is ambiguous, to put it mildly. But then again, in the big tune in Finlandia specifically marked ‘espressivo‘ Søndergård made sure that the carefully indicated phrasing in the woodwind and strings was properly pointed, with the result that the melodic line sounded less sentimental than it can sometimes do if it is treated too solemnly. In the symphony the feather-light rustling of the strings was always clearly defined without sacrificing the sense of atmosphere at the beginning of the final movement. In the closing bars of the symphony, which Sibelius marks ‘Un pocchetino stretto‘, Søndergård resisted the temptation to pile on the speed in a spurious attempt to add tension; the music was left to make its own mark in its own way, and was the stronger for it. Similarly in the Valse triste given as an (unannounced and unexpected) encore, the final appearance of the waltz theme in the low strings was carefully graded to reflect the dramatic intentions of the original incidental music, without the sense of a cataclysmic disaster which I have heard in some performances. Really the only point at which a stronger profile might have been welcome was in the central movements of the suite which Sibelius drew from his incidental music to the play King Christian II, although the opening Nocturne and the closing Ballade had plenty of symphonic strength and the strings played with flexibility and passion in their Elegy.

The centrepiece of this concert, however, lay not with Sibelius but his fellow-Scandinavian Nielsen, whose Flute Concerto was given a rare concert outing in the capable hands of Matthew Featherstone. Actually, the rendition was much more than just capable. The score itself, a product of Nielsen’s final period, presents all sorts of balance and interpretation problems, and the eruption in the closing pages of trombone glissandi left over from the more vulgar pages of the near-contemporary Sinfonia semplice do little to resolve matters. But throughout, this performance ensured that the soloist came through with perfect clarity, even when Nielsen’s orchestral tumult was at its most brazen; Featherstone was adept too in bringing out many unsuspected touches of lyrical delicacy which could so easily have been submerged in a concern for audibility. And what set the seal on the interpretation came at the end, as the soloist took the microphone to pay tribute to the orchestra’s piccolo player Eva Stewart, who had died last autumn; and then to perform Debussy’s Syrinx in her memory. Normally one would refrain from comment on such a personal occasion, but I do not expect ever to hear again a performance of this beautifully delicate piece of such emotional and musical effect. As the sound of the flute died away into silence at the end, the audience was so quiet that one could hear the air in the hall seeming to breathe.

The audience was unfortunately rather thin on the ground, at any rate in the stalls — possibly the foul weather may have deterred some people from attending — but they received full measure from the players and conductor, all of them at their considerable best. The programme was repeated in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall the following day, and is being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; the Cardiff performance, we are told, is scheduled for broadcast at a later date as an afternoon concert. Either will repay investigation, live or as a repeat on the BBC iPlayer. Oh, and may I mention the particularly attractive cover design for the programme, showing Søndergård looking out through the BBC NOW logo at a flying swan — exactly the image that Sibelius sought to conjure in the final bars of the Fifth Symphony?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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