Birthday boy Richard Strauss was celebrated again at the Proms with two early works, one an acknowledged masterpiece and the other a problem child, in an odd programme that included works by Mozart and Nielsen. It was almost as if the concert had been imagined at a dinner party when everyone was throwing in their ideas after a glass or two. But however the concert was concocted the mixture of works and the quality of the music making certainly made for a splendid evening’s entertainment.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

We kicked off with the Strauss masterwork, Death and Transfiguration, one those early tone poems that launched the young composer into the stratosphere with their dazzling orchestral colours, daring harmonies and melodic fecundity. In this performance the BBC National Orchestra of Wales demonstrated their virtuosity, ably steered by Thomas Søndergård. The unusual structure held together well and the ecstatic moment at the end of the piece, which depicts the death of an artist as seen through the eyes of a young man, was captured with nobility and poise.

After this sublime moment the rather patchy inspiration of Strauss even earlier Burleske for piano and orchestra was a less satisfying experience, despite the silken technique and tasteful phrasing of the young Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi. If any performance could persuade you of the merits of the piece this one should have done that, with the BBCNOW bouncing off the enthusiasm of the soloist and clearly enjoying themselves, but even these strengths didn’t hide the fact that the piece doesn’t add up to much and struggles to keep interest alive over its 22 minutes length. At times it sounded like heavyweight Saint-Saëns without that gossamer wit.

It was in the first Proms performance of the Rondo in A major K286 by Mozart that Piemontesi was able to show us his true mettle. This short, difficult to programme work, is one of Mozart’s gems and in this performance all the details of articulation and ornamentation were presented to us with such ease and lightness that I could have sat through the whole experience again. Instead we were treated to more Mozart in a delicate performance of the slow movement from his Piano Sonata no. 6 in D major K284.

This acted as a palate cleanser between the richness of the Strauss and the Nielsen, whose Fifth Symphony occupies a very different world to anything we had heard before. Written after the end of the First World War, it’s hard to think that this symphony was not a result of those horrific recent events. This is music that in its traumatic first movement, lays before us a battle not dissimilar to that which rounded off Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. There is a deeper sense of conflict and struggle than in the earlier symphony. In this performance the epic struggle between the side drum and whole orchestra was gripping and edgy, supported by apt tempo choices that never allowed the music to drag, but also strongly registered the violent moment which crowns the movement. After this climax, the beautifully played final clarinet solo echoed soulfully across the expanse of the Royal Albert Hall, only to be rudely interrupted by an offstage side drum that left the audience stunned.

The manic energy of the second part of the symphony then comes as something of a rude awakening. Initially there is a sense of business as normal, finally the war is over, but it soon becomes evident that the apparently positive energy of this music very easily slips into fugal hysteria and mournfulness and it is only in the last pages of the score that a sense of hope and clear skies ahead truly asserts itself. In this technically difficult and emotionally ambivalent movement the orchestra excelled itself, clearly well-coached by Søndergård, who from the evidence of this performance must have his compatriot Nielsen’s music flowing through every vein in his body. His reading of this symphony left one in no doubt as to its stature as the greatest of Nielsen’s symphonies and one of the most powerful symphonic statements of the 20th century. 

****1