François-Xavier Roth conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a varied programme of Mozart, Webern and Strauss, concluding with a powerful performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra at St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

Strings, BBC National Orchestra of Wales © Betina Skovbro
Strings, BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© Betina Skovbro

It was hard to spot a linking factor between the programmed works, but they seemed to complement each other nicely. A late reworking of running order placed the two Webern works first, followed by Mozart’s concert arias, then Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate and Zarathustra after the interval. Local soprano Rosemary Joshua, sadly, struggled with her voice in the arias and did not reappear post-interval, the orchestra instead going straight into Strauss. It was a shame, as apart from the occasional suggestion of hoarseness she showed a particularly beautiful tone in the three arias of 1789. One wondered whether the orchestra might have found a last-minute item to bulk out the programme (reduced to 70 minutes), but the risk of performing an unrehearsed work, coupled with the weightiness of Zarathustra, suggested that the decision to leave out Exsultate, jubilate was probably justifiable.

What we heard of Mozart was very enjoyable, with Rosemary Joshua bringing considerable warmth and expression to these small works written for insertion into operas by other composers. Her control of melismata was superb and her acting very convincing, building a good rapport with the audience (she joked about gin during a pause for water between the second and third arias). The orchestra behind her were bold, full-bodied accompanists.

Two early works of Anton Webern, written when the Viennese composer was 21 and 25 respectively, opened the programme. He declared the second, his 1908 Passacaglia, his “Opus One”, keen to mark a new chapter in his compositional style. It is both forward- and backward-looking, taking its roots in the 17th-century form characterised by a repeated bass figure but juxtaposed with highly chromatic writing above this. The orchestra gave a good account of it, a couple of moments of muddied texture aside, particularly relishing the bigger moments.

The other Webern, Im Sommerwind, is far more romantic in its soundworld, conceivably Mahlerian in passages of rich, warm sound. The string sound here was beautiful, agile and yet very warm, and well led by leader Lesley Hatfield. Her solos, here and later in Zarathustra, were unfailingly excellent, and her general demeanour in leading was very physical and engaged.

Roth’s vision of Also Sprach Zarathustra successfully navigated all the caprices of Strauss’ epic take on Nietzsche’s treatise. Since its opening minutes were included in 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly 50 years ago, the famous “Sunrise” has featured in countless other places. Tonight the urge to over-dramatise it was resisted, and the ensuing “Backwaters” featured some ravishingly gorgeous string playing. Roth conducted without baton all evening, and here his expressive gestures brought out a luxuriant sound. The energy was driven up for an impassioned “Of Joys and Passions”, and then held to an eerie hush for the “Grave Song”, where Lesley Hatfield gave another good solo.

In “Of Science” and “The Convalescent” there was some fine woodwind playing, breezily darting through the dotted rhythms with great panache. Roth seemed to be having enormous fun, completely taking off from the rostrum in places. He drove the orchestra to a towering, seat-pinning climax in “The Convalescent”, followed by a magnificent moment of quiet as the dying sound of full brass and organ reverberated around the hall. Principal horn and trumpet played very well, the latter unlucky to miss a notoriously difficult leap. There was further fine playing from the string principals in an elegantly lilting “Dance Song”. The closing “Night Wanderer’s Song” was beautifully paced and balanced by Roth, only the last woodwind chords slightly askew in woodwind ensemble. A pleasing pause followed the final bass pizzicato before a very enthusiastic ovation closed a memorable evening.