The perky new conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård, made his second Proms outing with an exciting programme of contrasting works which kicked off with the first UK performance of Colin Matthews’ Turning Point.

Thomas Søndergård makes his debut at the BBC Proms in Prom 9 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Thomas Søndergård makes his debut at the BBC Proms in Prom 9
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

First performed by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2006, Turning Point is an eighteen-minute work of considerable technical skill. The first half of the piece was very fleet of foot, with gossamer orchestration reminiscent at times of Matthews’ mentor, Britten. Like Britten, there was a creeping feeling that emotional impact was eschewed in favour of technique, until the eponymous turning point arrives and the music takes on a totally different character. The composer seems to be seeking out a more intense atmosphere, with a slow tempo, rattling percussion interjections and a wistful rounding off. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the two halves of the piece fitted together to make a whole. I can’t see the work being performed many more times at the Proms or anywhere else for that matter – sadly, the fate of most contemporary music.

The orchestra shrank somewhat for a lyrical performance of Prokofiev’s quirky and tuneful Second Violin Concerto (1935). The soloist was the sensitive Daniel Hope. He announced his gentle intentions with his opening solo presentation of the main theme of the first movement. However, as is the way with this quixotic piece, he soon had to throw himself into some spiky passages, which he did in a very athletic way. The glorious slow movement, with its irresistible slow waltz pizzicato opening theme, was wonderfully poised, and Hope was as sweet of tone as you’d like him to be. As the movement unfolds and the music becomes richer, with melody heaped on melody, there was a sense of real joy in the performance. In the dance-like final movement, the soloist got the opportunity to show off his virtuosity. But this is far from being an empty showpiece, and with an increasing sense of unease, the movement finds its way in the final bars to a strange duet between the violin and the base drum – reminding us that this is a work composed in troubled times.

And this unease was certainly picked up in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, which followed after the interval. Written 20 years after the Prokofiev, it certainly is the product of a world in turmoil. It was lauded and applauded by the Soviet authorities at its first performance in 1957, chiefly for its graphic depiction of the massacre of peaceful protesters in St Petersburg in 1905 by Tsarist forces, and also because it uses nine Russian revolutionary songs as its main thematic material. By the same standards, it was dismissed by Western critics as being merely empty propaganda. However, over time there has been a reappraisal of the work. Its melancholy toughness, structural strength and ambivalent conclusion make it seem more like a generalized depiction of oppression and cruelty. As a result, performances of the work are now outnumbering the work that it most resembles, the Leningrad Symphony, once the composer’s most popular. That work’s more ponderous nationalism is now seeming to wear thin, as the years progress.

Thomas Søndergård and BBC NOW’s performance of the symphony certainly emphasized its musical strengths. The very long, slow first movement was not rushed at all, and the tension it created was palpable in the hall. This uneasy stillness is shattered by the more impassioned music of the second movement, which culminates in the devastating passage that depicts the massacre itself – all navigated seamlessly by Søndergård. The lament that follows was extremely moving, with a beautiful cor anglais solo that seemed, appropriately, to go on forever. The final movement scurries in with a brutish glee. Several attempts to achieve a heroic tone are not achieved, and after a brief return to the slow opening music, the final climax is surprisingly short and not sweet. The particularly loud and resonant bells found for this performance emphasized the threatening atmosphere of these final bars, sounding funereal and doom-laden, rather than the triumphant hymn to Soviet ideals it was initially thought to be. After all, the composer had lived through the horror of Stalin and just survived – how could it be?