BBC NOW- Sondergård Relationship Goes from Strength to Strength

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Sibelius, Beethoven: Ingrid Fliter (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Sondergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 1.4.2014 (PCG)

Schubert – Symphony No 8 in B minor ‘Unfinished’
Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C, Op.105
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op.58

The fact that this concert had been hastily inserted into the schedules to fulfil a BBC commitment possibly served to explain the fact that two of the items on the programme duplicated works that had been given at St David’s Hall in Cardiff during the last eighteen months (both reviewed by myself for this site.) As it happened, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales had nothing to fear from comparison with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Unlike Libor Pešek Thomas Sondergård gave us the repeat in the opening movement which served to balance the two movements in length, and made a positive virtue of the repeat by differences of emphasis and balance. This was big-band Schubert with a vengeance, with a full measure of warmth and passion as well as drama. The opening of the development (the more surprising when the exposition repeat is given) was chilling in atmosphere, and after that the tension was fully maintained. In the second movement Sondergård kept the music con moto as marked without sacrificing the sense of melodic line. The climaxes here were positively Brucknerian (and none the worse for that); if such an approach is no longer fashionable, so much the worse for fashion. Sondergård here demonstrated, as in his remarkable performances of Mahler’s Ninth and Shostakovich’s Eleventh, a real sense of engagement with the music and a concern for correct balance.

His sense of identity with the composer’s score was even more solidly in evidence in the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. Balances were expertly and exquisitely judged, enabling all the orchestral strands of the music to come through clearly. One might have hoped that the resolving string discord in the final cadence could have been stronger, but apart from this very minor cavil this was an excellent performance which served to dispel any persistent nagging doubt that this work might not really be a symphony at all. Sibelius himself was in doubt, originally entitling the score Fantasia sinfonica, and indeed the fluid manner in which he moves from tempo to tempo has nothing of the more formal approaches that often is employed by composers in one-movement symphonies (usually consisting of the incorporation of scherzo and slow-movement elements into a more of less standard sonata form). But Sondergård managed to bind together the disparate sections into a unified and satisfying whole.

After the interval Ingrid Fliter joined the orchestra for a performance of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. If this failed to dispel memories of Igor Tchetuev’s performance in St David’s Hall eighteen months ago, this may have had something to do with my seat in the hall, rather further forward than usual (the hall was full) which meant that the piano tended to dominate the orchestra concealed behind the raised lid of the instrument. Fortunately Fliter’s playing was well able to survive this close scrutiny, and Sondergård made sure that the orchestra was not short-changed despite the somewhat 1950s LP-style balance. (It is of interest that the balance in Fliter’s recent CD recording of the two Chopin piano concertos, which I will review shortly, is much more natural.)  However, here sometimes woodwind melodies were in danger of becoming submerged beneath the soloist’s figuration. The second movement, with its inauthentic ‘programme’ of Orpheus taming the wild beasts, became more of an equal contest than usual; but even so the finale had all the zest and sparkle that one could desire. The audience was understandably wildly enthusiastic.

The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, but listeners can catch up with during the course of the next seven days on BBC i-player – and this would be well worth the effort. The partnership between the orchestra and Sondergård goes from strength to strength, and the conductor showed convincingly that he can be just as dramatically involved in scores that are not as histrionic as Mahler or Shostakovich.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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