Thomas Søndergård Debuts as BBC NOW’s Principal Conductor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lindberg, Grieg, Strauss, Sibelius: Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12.10.2012 (GPu).

Lindberg: EXPO
Grieg: Four Songs
Strauss: Three Songs
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Sibelius: Symphony No.5

This concert Thomas Søndergård debut in his new role as Principal Conductor of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, an interesting and decidedly promising appointment. It was fitting then that he should have begun his first programme with a Nordic piece written for another debut, that of Alan Gilbert as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 2009. Certainly it made for a lively, declamatory opening, Magnus Lindberg’s ten minute piece being full of punchy rhythms and rapid transitions of tempo, some rushing figures in the strings and plenty for the brass to do; indeed, the whole orchestra got a good work-out and the chance to show its paces. EXPO works quite nicely as a concert ‘overture’; without being a work of any great substance, it served to show how ‘together’ Søndergård and his new orchestra were.

Inger Dam-Jensen joined the orchestra for four songs by Grieg (giving us a Danish triumvirate, with the conductor). Dam-Jensen brought real authority to these songs, and her voice was excellent across its range; her genuine understanding of the texts she was singing was evident in the unfussy, unexaggerated, and entirely convincing, characterisation with which she invested them. ‘To brune øjne’(Two brown eyes) of 1864, setting words by Hans Christian Anderson, benefitted from a very sympathetic orchestral accompaniment, while in ‘Jeg elsker Dig’ (I love you) – once again setting Anderson – Dam-Jensen achieved an impressive depth of feeling and shaped the vocal lines very persuasively. These first two songs, which belong to Grieg’s Opus 5 of 1864, were orchestrated by others (the second by Max Reger), but the two later songs (published in 1876 and 1881 respectively) were orchestrated by Grieg himself. ‘En Svane’ (A swan) was sung with pleasing assurance (despite a less than inspiring text by Ibsen) and Thomas Søndergård shaped Grieg’s orchestration very sensitively. This short selection from Grieg’s many songs ended with ‘Våren’, the text of which, by Asmund Vinje, fuses images of the transition from winter into spring with images of music and creativity, clearly prompted some particularly fine writing by Grieg, not least for the strings, with some passages of striking poise and near stasis; Inger Dam-Jensen responded with some finely controlled singing, especially at the bottom of her range, and the close of this song worked especially well.

In three songs by Strauss (‘Muttertänderlei’, ‘Meinem Kinde’ and ‘Cäcilie) Dam-Jensen successfully articulated an impressive range of emotions – from the smug pride of ‘Muttertänderlei’, as a mother proudly flaunting what she (at least) sees as the superior beauties of her own child, through the tender love and concern of ‘Meinem Kinde’, to the lover’s passion of ‘Cäcilie’. Dam-Jensen has the singer’s gift of being able to create a character quickly and persuasively. The contrast between the intimacy of the instrumental support in ‘Meinem Kinde’ (essentially two violins, a viola, bass, cello and flute) and the full orchestral weight deployed in ‘Cäcilie’ made for good concert programming and also served to illustrate the often under-appreciated range of Strauss’s songs.

Till Eulenspiegel doesn’t seem to be at any risk of being under-appreciated – it seems to get programmed with great (excessive?) regularity on concert programmes. Colourful as it undoubtedly is, and as well and vivaciously played as it was on this occasion, its humour comes to seem somewhat ponderous. Still, there was an opportunity to admire and enjoy the splendidly clear textures that Søndergård elicited, as well as the rhythmic drive and flexibility which characterised his reading of the work. The woodwinds particularly distinguished themselves and there was plenty of impressive, crisp ensemble work in a performance which did justice to the shape and underlying argument of Strauss’s tone-poem.

After the interval we came to the major work on the programme – the Fifth Symphony of Sibelius. Søndergård has demonstrated his qualities as a Sibelian more than once in the past. Two years ago I found him outstanding in support of Vilde Frang’s Sibelius Violin Concerto in a Hoddinott Hall performance (see review). Only a few days ago Bernard Jacobson was praising Søndergård’s performance of Sibelius’ first symphony with Seattle Symphony for its “insight, imagination, and sheer skill” and judging it to be as “dramatic, coherent,, and downright beautiful” as any he had heard (see review). Expectations were, therefore, quite high. The opening of the first movement, with those crucial four notes beautifully played by the horns of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, held out further promise. But in the rest of that first moment, although there were plenty of impressive moments (there was some particularly fine playing from the brass), the tensions that hold together the complex architecture sometimes went missing. The transition into quicker tempos as the end of the movement approaches was well handled and the climax had plenty of ferocity; but overall my sense was of a reading that worked by juxtaposition of materials rather than by a kind of organic, inner logic. In the second movement Søndergård articulated persuasively Sibelius’s marking of ‘andante mosso, quasi allegretto’, though the music’s layering of surface serenity and somewhat troubled subterranean materials didn’t altogether come off and, consequently, there wasn’t a real tension between the alternate possibilities which the music implies. There was an impressive sense of scale in the final movement, and a sense of real momentum, of a significant journey approaching its end. Even so, the ‘Swan Hymn’ didn’t quite carry absolute conviction. Judging from the rapturous applause with which the performance was greeted, my reservations (and I am not describing a bad performance, merely one that wasn’t quite as gripping as I had expected) represented something of a minority view. Conversations after the concert, however, reassured me that I wasn’t in a minority of one, and that at least a few other listeners shared my slight disappointment.

I am utterly confident that Thomas Søndergård’s appointment will prove to be a wise decision. He brings new approaches to the orchestra and already one could hear differences, particularly as far as the interpretation of rhythmic patterns was concerned. There appears to be a genuine mutual respect between the orchestra and its new conductor and the signs are very promising. I very much look forward to the work that Søndergård will do with the orchestra, both in the Scandinavian repertoire and in other areas of the tradition too (his Haydn and Stravinsky in the Hoddinott Hall concert mentioned above were very fine).

Glyn Pursglove