Søndergård’s Conducting Generates Momentum and Excitement

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Korngold, Schumann: Daniel Hope (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / ThomasSøndergård (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 3.5.2013 (NR)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Korngold: Violin Concerto
Wagner: Träume
Schumann: Symphony no. 4 in D minor

Although Thomas Søndergård has been principal conductor of the BBC NOW since last September, this was the first time he had appeared at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall. His conducting had an energy and an urge to communicate which suggested he was keen to compensate for the delay.

The Wagner bicentenary was a strong feature, with the Siegfried Idyll first up – a very attractive performance, suitably languid but never dragging, with some beautiful woodwind playing in the middle sections and lovely hushed cellos towards the end. However, Wagner shorn of monumentality seems a different animal. Here and in the arrangement for violin and orchestra of Träume from the Wesendonck Lieder, which began the second half, the softly pulsing horns just did enough to recall the Weber-derived forest romanticism from which the whole Wagnerian project seemed to spring. Daniel Hope played this piece with great sensitivity and subtlety.

Sensitivity and subtlety are not quite such appropriate words for the Korngold Violin Concerto. BBC Radio 3 ran what I thought a slightly coercive campaign, a few years ago, to persuade its listeners that Korngold was not only a neglected composer but one who ought to be a staple of the mainstream repertoire. I’m not sure this campaign really succeeded (and it seems to have been quietly dropped nowadays), although Die Tote Stadt still has an occasional outing. The Violin Concerto, dating from 1945, was given as persuasive a performance as Radio 3 could have wished for, despite the sense that some of Hope’s impressive virtuosity was being slightly buried in the surrounding textures. The harmonies in the slow movement were just tense and Mahlerian enough for the overall effect to stay on this side of saccharine: there’s a heartfelt nostalgia for old Vienna in this piece, which has some real punch, although the curious would-be-hoedown finale rather undermined things. Don’t some composers seem prisoners of their own gifts, even when those gifts are remarkable?

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was played in its later, expanded version. I prefer the earlier one, where the inventiveness runs more freely, but Søndergård drew a really dynamic and exciting performance from his players – with the brass section completely on top of their game again, as they had been last time at the Brangwyn, the powerfully sonorous chords that set up the finale negotiated with total conviction. Søndergård drove things along at some speed – even the violin triplet passage was pretty quick. He brought irresistible momentum to the dotted rhythms, and gave the fleeting later reminders of the first-movement material exactly the masquerade character which Schumann would have loved and probably couldn’t trust his own orchestra to manage.

Neil Reeve