Thomas Søndergård made his BBC Proms debut at the end of a successful first season at the helm of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, bringing a hefty programme of Stenhammar, Szymanowski and Strauss to the Royal Albert Hall.

Thomas Søndergård conducts the BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Thomas Søndergård conducts the BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It was a fascinating programme, with a first half of relatively underperformed works prefacing Strauss’ popular Alpine Symphony. Søndergård’s predecessor, Thierry Fischer, chose the Strauss for his final Cardiff concert with the orchestra last year, giving a fine account of it which I was lucky to witness. Direct comparison between the two performances was interesting. Though Søndergård’s was marginally better polished in individual playing and certain passages of the work, his reading didn’t quite seem to form as satisfying or coherent a whole as Fischer’s. There was little sense of substance behind the music, no Nietzschean subtext behind a very enjoyable mountain walk. Tempos were often on the quick side, particularly on the ascent, Søndergård coming in just over three minutes shorter than Fischer. There were a few moments at big cadences where Søndergård pushed quickly forwards without hesitation, occasionally causing minor ensemble slips as the orchestra seemed to expect more of a pause. A little more air in general might have gone a long way.

Tonight’s rendition was still hugely enjoyable, though, featuring some outstanding playing from all corners. Quite literally, the offstage hunting party made excellent use of the cavernous auditorium, boisterously announcing themselves from high in the gallery, their sound ringing across the hall. The cowbell part was divided between three players, stationed at the sides and back of the stalls, giving a very convincing, if slightly unnerving, impression of being amongst the herd. This, and some excellent woodwind bleating, made for a very literal, vivid ascent.

The choking oboe solo on reaching the summit gave a lovely impression of awestruck wonderment. Plaudits must also go to principal horn and trumpet, who both navigated challenging parts superbly, giving blazing power at the summit and in a very angry storm. Here, the sweltering London heat could be forgotten as wind and thunder machines were attacked with gusto. Søndergård did a good job of highlighting some pleasing details amongst the chaos. The final minutes featured some well-balanced playing between horn, woodwind and organ. Night fell quite quickly, and the last chords might have been more widely spaced, but it concluded a very enjoyable performance, albeit a relatively straightforward, unsentimental one.

The greatest success of the evening was a thrilling account of Karol Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, The Song of the Night. Completed in 1916, it sees the Polish composer turning away from western symphonic tradition, instead looking east, to the 13th-century poetry of Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi. Søndergård and his massed forces captured the exotic chromaticism and huge climaxes very effectively in a very warmly received performance. The choral sound was particularly impressive, coming from the combined might of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC Symphony Chorus. The chorus appear at the beginning of the work, wordless at first, before taking up Rumi’s text, and remain a continued presence. Their diction was very clear and crisp throughout, but it was their shattering climaxes with David Goode at the organ which gave the strongest effect.

The repeated march passage with soft percussion effects was highly evocative, as was some wonderfully characterful woodwind playing. Søndergård seemed more willing to give the music breathing space than he was later for Strauss, which helped capture the still night and sense of wonderment of Rumi’s poem. Swedish tenor Michael Weinius sang very well at the outer edges of the work (he is not deployed for much of the middle section), turning slightly to address the chorus in his final lines. A soft cymbal roll hung gently in the air to complete a pleasing component of this Proms season’s championing of Polish composers.

The evening began with another Swede, Wilhelm Stenhammar, and his 1896 overture Excelsior! A quotation from Goethe’s Faust at the top of the score, and a recurring “rocket-like theme”, made for a neatly complementary addition to the concert theme of upward striving, so important to the Szymanowski and Strauss. The rounded, gleaming string sound here made for some lovely moments, but some ensemble and balancing issues made it difficult to grasp the longer structure of the piece. It certainly offered a way into a neglected composer, though, and was a good concert opener.

***11