PROM 34: Thomas Søndergård Brings Nielsen’s Fifth to the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 34:Strauss, Mozart, Nielsen, Francesco Pietmontesi (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Royal Albert Hal, London, 11.8.2014 (RB)

Strauss – Tod und Verklärung
Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra
Mozart – Rondo in A major for piano and orchestra, K386
Nielsen – Symphony No. 5


This Prom continued the ongoing festivities to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Strauss’s birth.  The two works being performed in the first half – Tod und Verklärung and the Burleske – both received their première at the same concert on 21 June in 1890 under the baton of the composer.  In the second half, Danish conductor, Thomas  Søndergård, put his own personal stamp on one of the greatest orchestral works ever to emerge from Denmark – Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.  This work was written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and expresses the composer’s horror at those events and his resolution that evil must never be allowed to triumph.

Strauss wrote Tod und Verklärung when he was just 25.  This music was clearly very special to him:  nearly 60 years after the composition of the piece he quoted the ‘transfiguration’ motif in the last of his Four Last Songs.  On his deathbed the following year, Strauss commented:  “Dying is just as I composed it in Tod und Verkärung”.  Søndergård and the BBC NOW opened this Prom by giving a very assured and accomplished performance of this great tone poem.  In the opening section the irregular heartbeat was perfectly realised by strings and timpani and the arching woodwind and violin solos over harp accompaniment were nicely shaped (the oboe solo was exceptionally fine).  The transition to the more agitated section was nicely handled by Søndergård although I was looking for slightly more visceral intensity from the strings and some of the brass entries were a little unfocussed.  In the penultimate section I loved the rich sonorities and the way Søndergård and the orchestra managed to caress the lush romantic phrases to bring out Strauss’s glistening colours.  The final transfiguration of the title was played with real conviction with the BBC NOW achieving that sense of rapture and transcendence that the composer himself found so alluring.

 Swiss-Italian pianist, Francesco Pietmontesi, joined the party for Strauss’s witty and highly virtuosic Burleske for piano and orchestra.  The piano writing is clearly indebted to Chopin and Liszt which is probably why it is such a popular work with pianists but Strauss’s unique fingerprints are also apparent.  Søndergård and the BBCNOW opened the piece in style with some sharply defined dynamic contrasts in timpani and strings.  Pietmontesi had no trouble at all with the daunting pyrotechnics and handled the rapid fire double octaves and virtuoso passage work with ease; his articulation was superb.  He brought out very successfully the wit and humour of the work – I suspect he would be a good Haydn player – really making the most of the composer’s mercurial capers and rollicking high jinks.  He also created some lovely rich tone colours and gave us some beautiful cantabile playing in the waltz episodes.  He approached some of the barnstorming passages in a slightly cool way and I would like have liked to hear more of the fire in those sections and sense of risk that one hears in, say, Argerich’s performance.  Pietmontesi ended his performance in style with some stylishly shaped coquettish pirouettes and light passage work before the piece vanished into thin air.

 Pietmontesi is a very accomplished Mozart player and he and the BBCNOW opened the second half with the first performance at the Proms of Mozart’s single movement Rondo in A major.  The story of how the work came into being is fascinating.  Following the death of Mozart the manuscript was sold to the composer, William Sterndale Bennett who, in an act of grotesque musical vandalism, sold off individual pages and cut pages of the manuscript into quarters and gave these fragments away as gifts.  A number of leading musicologists led by Alfred Einstein managed to reconstruct the score before Paul Badura-Skoda and others introduced it to the wider public.  In this performance the orchestral textures in the opening tutti were very light and the phrases nicely tapered with Søndergård and the BBC NOW displaying a pleasing sense of Classical style.  Pietmontesi played with poise and elegance and he delivered the passage-work in a very tasteful way and did a superb job projecting the sound while maintaining beauty of tone.  Through a judicious use of tone colour he succeeded in bringing out the sunny lyricism of the music while the ornamentation was exquisitely executed.  Pietmontesi played the slow movement from one of Mozart’s piano sonatas as an encore.

Simon Rattle described Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony as his ‘War Symphony’ and it shows the composer struggling with concepts of good and evil and trying to make sense of the extraordinary destruction wrought by the First World War.  Nielsen uses a militaristic side drum in the first movement with the instruction that the drummer improvise “in his own tempo, as though determined at all costs to obstruct the music”.  Søndergård and the BBCNOW captured the ominous sense of calm that permeates the opening section.  The clarinet and flute entries were very well executed and the principal clarinettist seemed generally to be firing on all cylinders throughout the piece.  Strings and brass maintained the lush romantic textures of the Adagio section before the side drum began its crazed assault – the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattles” in Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth were not far away.  Søndergård and the BBCNOW seemed to portray this as a titanic battle over the future of civilisation and it was the highlight of the entire concert for me.  Before the movement ended a further side drum sounded from off stage – a warning that the drums of war, while receding, are never far away.

 The very high standard of playing continued throughout the second movement which started in buoyant and upbeat fashion.  The strings had clearly been well drilled and did a superb job with Nielsen’s oscillating textures where storm clouds seemed to gather.   Søndergård kept the voices and lines of the first fugue very clean and he brought out the diabolism of the score and allowed the music to build in an elemental way all while the shrieking clarinet added to the fray.  This was followed by a soft enveloping halo of sound in the second fugue which provided the balm after the storm before the work concluded in a cry of affirmation.  This was a great performance of one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century and it was good to see Søndergård championing this work – more Nielsen please!

Robert Beattie

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