Stimulating start for Welsh orchestra’s Principal Conductor-Designate

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Dvorak: Baiba Skride (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Søndergård (conductor), BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 12. 7. 2011 (GPu)

Sibelius , En Saga

Prokofiev , Violin Concerto No.1

Dvorak : Symphony No.9, ‘From the New World’

Beyond its own intrinsic merits and interest, this concert was significant in that it marked the official announcement of Thomas Søndergård’s appointment as the next Principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He will succeed Thierry Fischer in September 2012. In Wales, at least, Søndergård has I think conducted the orchestra only on two previous occasions – in December 2009 when he stepped in at short notice and in 2010 when he conducted a memorable concert with violinist Vilde Frang. He certainly made a very favourable impression on most listeners on those occasions; evidently he also impressed the powers-that-be where BBC NOW is concerned. In his early forties, Søndergård is currently Principal conductor and Musical Adviser of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. He has worked with such orchestras as the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and with the Royal Danish and Swedish Operas and the Stuttgart Staatsoper. I missed his 2009 concert with what will soon be ‘his’ orchestra, but can certainly report that in last year’s concert and on this occasion, he and the orchestra have seem to have found one another’s company very stimulating, and some fine music-making has resulted.

This particular evening began with a judiciously ‘Nordic’ performance of Sibelius’ En Saga, convincingly idiomatic and full of striking dynamic contrasts. It was a reading that admitted a little more light than some conductors do in this tone poem, and what were in some ways the most memorable moments came in the music’s gentler passages. Not that Søndergård was ever in danger of neglecting the work’s heroic energy, and its thematic contests were communicated with passion and discipline. The woodwinds play a prominent role in this early orchestral work and that section of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales showed itself very well able to meet the demands placed upon it; the work of clarinettist Robert Plane was outstanding in the long clarinet solo in the work’s closing phase.

Baiba Skride was a musically vivacious soloist in the first of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos – a work which offered a complete contrast of mood with what had gone before it. This is (for the most part) Prokofiev at his most lyrical, even if lyrical sweetness is not allowed to go completely untouched by acerbity for too long. It has always seemed to me extraordinary that the work should seem almost wholly untouched by the political turbulence surrounding it in the Russia of 1917 in which Prokofiev composed it. Some of the ideas for it were sketched when Prokofiev made a boat trip along the River Kama, taking him to the Urals and the very edge of Siberia. Certainly this is music less obviously ‘urban’ than much of its composer’s work; its rhythms seem thoroughly natural; Israel Nestiev found in it “the vibration of all the joys of living, all the love of sunshine and nature”. Skride’s playing – over beautifully shimmering strings – sustained the dreamlike, haunting quality of the opening (which is actually marked ‘sognando’) very engagingly. Conductor, orchestra and soloist made perfect sense of this opening movement’s journey out through some quirky gavotte-like materials and back home to a recapitulation of the first theme, stated this time by the flute (Eva Stewart), ‘accompanied’ by the violin of the soloist and the harp (Valerie Aldrich-Smith). This performance did full justice to this lovely passage. The central scherzo of the concerto contains a range of technical effects (pizzicato, sul ponticello, etc) but in Baiba Skride’s hands it still retained that intimacy which in a few onstage remarks she highlighted as the particular quality of the work and was never in danger of becoming merely ostentatious. The opening of the finale, like more than a little in Prokofiev, occupies the fascinating borderland between the humorous and the beautiful – the near jokiness of the figurations of the bassoon (bassoonist Amy Harman was impressive in all she did throughout the concert) magically becoming lyrical when taken over by the soloist. This was a rewarding performance of a rewarding piece.

After the interval, Dvorak’s New World provided what turned out to be the highpoint of a very enjoyable evening. It is some time since I heard a live performance of this symphony in which it came up sounding quite so fresh and newly-minted. Søndergård directed a passionate, expressive performance, full of rhythmic drive. At pretty well every point in the symphony Søndergård found ways of reconciling the potentially conflicting demands of lyricism and energy, subtlety of thought and demonstrative excitement. In the largo even the now dangerously familiar melody (cor-anglais player Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer must take a good deal of the credit) communicated at a level far deeper than mere recognition. Søndergård articulated the relatively complex structure of the scherzo with pleasing clarity. In the last movement the pacing was impressively purposeful and well-judged, and the many recurrences of earlier themes were made to seem natural, not forced. The final tutti had a blazing power and the last chord a touchingly valedictory quality. Anyone who hadn’t previously encountered much of Søndergård’s work would have found reassurance of his merits and of his suitability for his new post – for now he is Principal Conductor Designate – in this concert, not least in this particularly impressive performance of one of the great symphonies.

Glyn Pursglove