Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 35: BBC NOW/Søndergård @ Royal Albert Hall, London

12 August 2014

Thomas Søndergård(Photo: Geraint Tellem)

Thomas Søndergård
(Photo: Geraint Tellem)

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales returned for the second time to the Royal Albert Hall under their principal conductor Thomas Søndergård with a well-balanced, carefully crafted programme.

Søndergård’s association with the traditional Nordic repertoire is well known (he is Danish, after all), but he is less recognised as a champion of contemporary music. Still, the 1990 suite of music from Peter Maxwell Davies’s ballet score Caroline Mathilde has both traditional and Nordic elements. The scenario deals with the marriage of English princess Caroline Mathilde (sister of George III) to the mentally ill Christian VII of Denmark, her affair with the king’s doctor, and her final downfall and exile. The music probably makes better sense in the context of the ballet, but Søndergård and the BBCNOW players did much to dramatize the more directly narrative elements, while highlighting the array of orchestral colouring and dynamic range. Both the writing and the playing for brass in the first two sections were particularly impressive, and Maxwell Davies himself was on hand to receive warm applause at the suite’s end.

More British music followed, but a world away from the cut-throat world of eighteenth century court politics. Walton’s Violin Concerto, which was commissioned by Jascha Heifetz in 1938, is a warm, sunny work, interspersed with passionate, even irascible, outbursts and contemplative yearnings which undoubtedly reflect something of the composer’s character. Soloist James Ehnes steered a middle course between these shifting moods, with an intensely relaxed approach. His Stradivarius violin emitted a clear, sweetly resonant, tone which was ably supported by the orchestra. The generosity of Ehnes’s playing was reflected in a fine encore (the third-movement Andante from Bach’s Sonata in A minor) and in his return to the Hall after the interval (during which he happily received plaudits from fans) to hear and watch the BBC NOW and Søndergård tackle two key Sibelius works.

Both conductor and orchestra have recorded Sibelius together, and the Symphony No. 5 formed part of their appearance at the Proms in 2012. Before that, though, came the tone poem The Swan of Tuonela. Theirs was a rather fast reading, with the Swan gliding across rather than floating on the Lake of Death. But Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer on cor anglais, and principal cellist Victoria Simonsen still managed to maintain a mystical rather than lugubrious tone. In the Fifth Symphony Søndergård seemed determined to lift the scoring off the page. Thus, there was a great deal of clarity and fine detailing in the rhythmically rocking first movement, and the deceptively simple second movement, with its rustic church sonorities. But it was in the final Allegro that conductor and orchestra really triumphed. The celebrated ‘Swan Hymn’ theme was majestically developed in its various guises, and there were plenty of pleasing details, like the double bassists’ wooden bow clatters beneath the horns, and, of course, the splendid final chords.

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