A Convincing Concert Full of Delights from Søndergård and BBC NOW

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Andersson, Strauss, Sibelius: Ann Petersen (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 3.10.2014 (PCG)

Andersson – The Garden of Delights (2009)
Strauss – Four Last Songs (1948)
Sibelius – Symphony No 2 in D, Op.43 (1901-2)


In any review a writer is generally expected to offer criticism of either the music or the performance (or both), but this concert defied expectations in denying any possibility for this. It was simply perfect. The playing of the orchestra in their second concert of the 2014-15 season was superlative; the interpretation – although far from being simply conventional – was convincing and overpowering by turns; and the music itself was delivered with all the passion that anyone could wish. But gush is seldom convincing, as correspondents to the message board on this site have sometimes complained; so I will endeavour to show in the course of this review precisely why everything was so exactly right.

 The concert opened with B Tommy Andersson’s The Garden of Delights, a tone poem based on the famous Hieronymus Bosch triptych, although the composer disclaimed any programmatic intention. But the opening was clearly a depiction of Hell, while the gentler central section was – if not Paradise – at least the Garden of Eden, with its chirruping songbirds sounding through the stillness recalling the depiction of The Garden of Love from Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony if with rather more chastity. The long-breathed violin melody, with its almost Mantovani-like cascades of string tone, was particularly beautiful. The return of the ‘Hell’ music found the wood blocks ticking away like some sort of demented metronome, in a passage which surely was intended to illustrate one of the depictions in Bosch’s painting; but the conclusion, particularly after the long pastoral centrepiece, seemed curiously brief. The capacity audience, hardly any one of whom will have heard the piece before, were enthusiastic in their acclaim for the composer and the players, and the performance was simply stunning in both its virtuosity and its repose. One looks forward to further encounters with Andersson’s music (he has been appointed the orchestra’s composer in residence for this season) later in the year.

 Right from their first performance with Kirsten Flagstad given after the composer’s death, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs have produced two quite distinct strains of interpretation. Some singers, such as Lisa della Casa and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, taking into account the long melismatic phrases written for the solo voice, have avoided the need for any breaks for breath by adopting fairly swift speeds; others, such as Gundula Janowitz and Jessye Norman, have adopted a much broader and richer style even if this has often meant that phrases have to be broken in the middle. I have to say that personally I prefer the broader approach, which allows for the valedictory nature of the words to be fully appreciated, and here the stupendous Ann Petersen was daringly slow; but, given her prodigious breath control and marvellously inflected soft singing, there was never any sense that she felt any necessity to replenish her lungs at all. Her sympathetically controlled hand movements enticed the audience into the very heart of the poems; and her delivery of the final line “Ist dies etwa der Tod?”, followed by her silently rapt expression of infinite regret and compassion, must surely have left not a dry eye in the house. In Beim Schlafengehen, instead of the cool clear line often offered, Lesley Hatfield’s emotional engagement during her violin solo showed a similar sense of passion which only served to reinforce the effect of the beautiful music. This was quite simply one of the great interpretations of these songs. By the way, the BBC are to be commended for providing full texts and translations in their programme booklet.

After the interval Thomas Søndergård was on home territory with his performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony, but again this was far from a conventional account of the score. Sibelius himself left the interpreter with a considerable amount of leeway – there are no metronome marks to guide the tempo, and the tempo indications themselves are often open to ambiguity – and the composer’s habit during his lifetime of enthusiastically endorsing whatever approach a conductor cared to take hardly helped to clarify matters. Nevertheless the precise marking of the opening string phrases, with louré markings connected by bowing slurs, does not seem to me to admit of much variety of interpretation: they should form a gently pulsing line rising up to the woodwind entries which follow. This has not stopped some conductors adopting a broken approach to each note, which anticipates the staccato marking which Sibelius applies to the woodwind when they finally arrive. Søndergård did not make this mistake, properly allowing for the full level of contrast that the music clearly demands. Sibelius also set problems of balance by employing only double woodwind in the context of a full romantic body of brass and strings, possibly reflecting the number of instruments that were available to him at the time of the first performances; but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales made light of these difficulties, with Matthew Featherstone managing to make certain that even his lowest-lying solo flute passages over brass accompaniment came through loud and clear.

At the start of the slow movement Sibelius sets out with a long pizzicato passage for double-basses and then cellos, which many conductors tend to take at a fairly fast pace presumably for fear of boring the audience. Søndergård took this passage daringly slow, with the bassoon duet which follows achieving an other-worldly sound; and demonstrated how right he was by his ability to control the poco a poco stringendo which follows so as not to arrive at the faster speed of Poco allegro too soon. His realisation of Sibelius’s rubato marking, too, was superbly controlled; and he was not afraid to allow the long pauses to make their full dramatic effect later on in the movement. On the other hand the scherzo and finale were taken at a full lick, and the definition of the string playing was a marvel to hear and behold. Leaving the hall and waiting for a bus, I was startled to hear (at ten minute intervals) two members of the public walking past and whistling the main theme from Sibelius’s finale. Surely a performance can receive no higher compliment than that.

Paul Corfield Godfrey