Søndergård’s Last Cardiff Appearance as Chief Conductor of BBC NOW

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Baiba Skride (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.6.2018. (PCG)

Thomas Søndergård (c) Andy Buchanan

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D Op.35
Shostakovich – Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47

This concert was the final appearance in Cardiff by Thomas Søndergård as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Michael Garvey, director of the orchestra, opened the proceedings with a heartfelt tribute to Søndergård’s work over the past five years, and gave a welcome reassurance that he would be returning to conduct the orchestra in future seasons. In the meantime, the performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony served as a welcome reminder to audiences of the great strengths of Søndergård’s performances over the years: a close attention to the score, bringing out many felicities of scoring often overlooked; a willingness to let his players have their heads where appropriate, allowing for a sense of expression and give-and-take reminiscent of chamber music at its best; and a stunning control of the extremes of dynamics, ranging from a barely perceptible whisper in parts of the slow movement to a properly earth-shattering conclusion which served to bring the cheering audience to its feet in appreciation at the end.

There is, of course, always some doubt as to whether this is an appropriate audience reaction to Shostakovich’s ‘response to justified criticism’. Notwithstanding the accuracy or otherwise of the composer’s own observations in his so-called autobiographical Testimony (Pauline Fairclough’s excellent programme note came out firmly against its authenticity), the sudden plunge back into the minor in the concluding bars surely has the effect of casting a shadow over the sense of rejoicing that the whole movement has supposedly been celebrating. Indeed, the intention of the composer, although his concern to engage the emotions of the audience is palpably sincere, remains an enigma to this day. Some conductors have sought to emphasise this uncertainty by performances which stress the dark undercurrents perturbing the surface of the music. Søndergård is not among their number; he presents us the score exactly as Shostakovich wrote it, allowing any disturbing message to come directly from the composer and not from a conductor’s interpretation. Not that his interpretation is always entirely conventional. In the closing bars of the first movement, he brought out Shostakovich’s clearly marked slow glissando in the strings in a manner that I do not recall having encountered before. In the central section of the slow movement, too, he allowed the woodwind contributions to be refined down to a mere trickle of sound – superbly realised by all the principals – and the results found the audience holding their breath in sympathy. This was, in other words, a performance that showed both conductor and orchestra at their superlative best.

Before the interval, the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride gave us a similarly heartfelt performance of that old warhorse, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. There is still a regular habit of giving this in the version with unauthorised niggling cuts in the finale, and soloist and conductor rightly had no truck with this; but at the same time the results did seem to be protracted unduly, partially through a tendency to draw out the lyrical passages (especially in the opening movement) in a manner which led to some unsteadiness of speed. At one point Søndergård seemed to press on the throttle during a tutti passage, only to rein back the onward momentum some bars later at the re-entry of the soloist. It was clear that both he and the soloist love the music – what is there not to love? – but at the same time there were places where that affection seemed to verge on the excessive. The slow canzonetta, though, was beautifully played, with the sound of the solo violin (marked by the composer to be muted throughout) reduced to a wisp of melody without loss of the required strength. The finale had a headlong momentum that brought deserved cheers from the large and enthusiastic audience for both soloist and conductor. This was decidedly a different, more reflective, view of the Tchaikovsky concerto than we sometimes hear, and was welcome as a fresh perspective without always being totally convincing.

We will miss Søndergård, but I am glad to see that he is scheduled to return to Cardiff next January to continue his Mahler cycle with a performance of the unfinished Tenth (the Adagio only, alas). Among the performances with this orchestra at the 2018 Proms, next month in fact, he is also conducting the Eighth with a starry team of soloists and a bevy of choirs including the BBC National Chorus of Wales. The concert reviewed here was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Tuesday 12 June (the BBC programme book incorrectly stated Friday 8 June) and will certainly repay the listeners’ attention, although inevitably the broadcast sound will not be able to do justice to the stunningly wide dynamic range that we heard live in the hall.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “Søndergård’s Last Cardiff Appearance as Chief Conductor of BBC NOW”

  1. Correction Paul – Baiba Skride is Latvian, not Lithuanian!
    I heard her play the same concerto in Zurich a year or so ago and this Cardiff performance was very different, slower, much more introspective, but fine as always from this outstanding player. Yes we shall miss Søndergård who has done much good work here. His Mahler 8 Prom should be something special. I imagine the BBC NOW will not rush to choose a new chief so we may have a year or two to wait.


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