I find it difficult to remember the last time I attended a concert in which I was met with just about everything that I wanted to hear, settled alongside facets of performance that I hadn’t yet encountered. Perhaps tonight was, indeed, my first such experience.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

Thomas Søndergård’s rendition of Poulenc’s Gloria realised everything that I find I intuitively hope to hear from it. His direct and unyielding opening tempo was – personally – previously unheard, but completely spoke to me. Past performances I have encountered seem to have taken this movement with a certain ball-and-chain heaviness (even the faster ones), perhaps in an effort to balance Poulenc’s quirky and sentimental musical masks or, more specifically, ”the Jester and the Jesus” in his Gloria setting. Interestingly, though, Søndergård’s commitment to highlighting the more nonchalant aspects of the work conveyed a very sincere performance overall. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ delivery was energetic (particularly the bombastic brass – more of this later) and delicately perfumed in the slower moments, and the BBC National Chorus were incredibly punchy in the Domine Fili unigenite.

However, what was most unexpectedly striking about the Gloria was the subtlety delivered by Marita Sølberg, who trod the line between expressivity and unaffected, reserved control. There was a lovely dark quality to her voice, even in the higher registers, and a silky weightlessness that became particularly apparent in the fifth movement, Domine Deus. And, as the work closed, it was a testament to Sølberg’s temperament as a soloist that she chose to blend her final “Amen” as intimately with the orchestra and chorus as she did. As such, it seemed less as though she was having the final word and more that she was uniting with the orchestra and chorus in their final chord.

With regards to Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, the second work in tonight’s concert and a powerfully expressive one at that, I am still perplexed that it isn’t performed more often. Indeed, a cursory glance at Bachtrack’s list of upcoming concerts shows that, at the time of writing, his Fifth and Tenth Symphonies are (respectively) scheduled to be performed at over three times more concerts than the Eighth. These are, of course, highly popular alternative works, but perhaps the sheer length of the Eighth that is a contributing factor. This is unfortunate, as it is its scale (particularly the lengthy sections of the first movement) that ultimately contributes to its evocativeness and expressivity as a whole, exploring the dichotomy between light and darkness.

Søndergård and the BBC NOW delivered an incredibly powerful sound when required, but never at the expense of accuracy, energy or technical facility. This was perfectly exemplified by the brass in the third movement, Allegro non troppo, which adopted the opening viola motif with precision, muscle and bite (I have heard a number of performances in which the section trip over the notes and each other). On the other hand, the sensitivity and gentle, probing insistence with which the orchestra executed the first movement quickly called to mind an infamous quote from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. Again, a small but telling point: in terms of precision, the passing of the single woodwind note to the brass – from one side of the stage to the other – at the opening of the third movement was finely pinpointed, both dynamically and timbrally.

Søndergård’s conclusion to the symphony was very well paced as it drew to its end, striking a fine balance between the inevitable close and a sense of still-continuing movement. As such, it didn’t feel as though the work had ground to a halt before it was due to.

Both works performed tonight were executed, from first to last note, with such concentrated, purposeful energy, care and with such conviction that it feels as though, for me, a bar has well and truly been set for future performances.

*****