Thomas Søndergård and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales offered a thrilling programme of Stenhammar, Szymanowski and Richard Strauss for their first BBC Prom in the 2013 season. Although Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is nowadays a well-known vehicle for an orchestra to show off its versatility, Szymanowski still remains under-appreciated despite the best efforts of several significant conductors and ensembles in recent years, whilst Stenhammar’s music can do with all the all the advocates it can get. Taking a seat in the stalls, my only regret was that more people were not present. At least the back third of the arena was empty and large numbers of seats were vacant, so hopefully the radio and online audience made some compensation for this. This was certainly intelligent programming, since Stemhammar, a leading pianist of his day, once performed in Berlin under Strauss’ baton, whilst Szymanowski continued the exploration of Polish music throughout the Proms season.
Stenhammar wrote his symphonic overture Excelsior! in1896 at the age of 25 and the music is certainly possessed of youthful self-belief which mixes his Swedish roots with musical language of very Germanic late-Romantic heritage. Søndergård led a performance that was alive with nuance whilst being taught in structure from the overture’s dynamic and surging opening theme to its later more keenly accented material. If the emphasis was initially towards the top string lines, passion and contrast were to be added through the telling contributions of cellos and basses, piquant woodwinds and the brass whose parts largely brought the crux of this dramatic music to a head. Søndergård took care to layer the textures on top of one another to build an imposing body of sound which proved gripping stuff when in full flow. The conclusion found a beautifully brassy bloom echoing throughout the Royal Albert Hall.
The sound world of Szymanowski’s third symphony is rather different, though no less luxuriant. From its initial darkly hued passages, Szymanowski creates an imagined world of orientalism that carries the sensuousness of the night forth on a judicious mixture of lengthy string passages and skilfully mixed individual timbres: the combination of piano, trombone, triangle, drum and wordless chorus remains in the mind. Control and incisive detail met with languid tone before giving way with ease to thunderous acclamation from the orchestral and choral forces under Søndergård’s baton. For his part, Michael Weinius proved a tenor soloist with forthright tone and well supported if throaty voice, cutting a clear swathe through all but the most climactic of passages. If the impassioned ecstacy was forcefully rendered in this performance then the aftermath possessed enough to provide contrast where it was needed.
Thomas Søndergård led an energetic and bracing account of Strauss’ alpine tone poem. As was by now evident, he is a conductor that has a flair for the grand statement and big musical moments. His players might be more cognisant of the environs of Snowdonia, yet under Søndergård’s baton they proved unafraid of scaling Strauss’s Bavarian peaks in style and with a fair degree of confidence. This was a performance that painted the scene in primary colours for the most part, Sunrise flamingly bright and every trickle of water falling from the waterfall registered with ease. Full use was made of the Royal Albert Hall to accommodate a phalanx of off-stage trumpets in the gallery and rather cacophonous cowbells in two stalls doorways. Indeed, at times both the forward momentum of Søndergård’s interpretation and his enthusiasm to be fully involved in the broad sweep (his gestures, particularly the constant quiver in the left hand, are the antithesis of Strauss’ own meticulous conducting method) and some minutiae of interpretation meant that ideal balance and perspective was occasionally sacrificed. Being seated directly across from the Wagner tubas, trombones and trumpets had me pinned to the back of my seat with their full-on tutti playing, but the experience was certainly an exciting one when it came to finally reaching the summit and feeling the full force of the thunderstorm. Were it to have been a more rounded interpretation of Strauss’ score though, the moments of uncertainty that the mountaineer experiences – Lost in thickets and undergrowth or Precarious moments, for example – would have been more tellingly integrated into the whole, an approach that Bernard Haitink demonstrated effortlessly last season with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. In the end though, Søndergård saw night return and brought the tone poem’s music full circle to complete the evening to a warm, enthusiastic reception.
Further information on BBC Proms concerts can be found at bbc.co.uk/proms.