Inspired by the sight of sixteen swans in flight, the great swinging horn call in the final movement of Sibelius Fifth Symphony is one of the most life-affirming moments in the composer’s output. If this ‘Swan Hymn’ glowed rather than blazed brightly last night, it was the journey there which impressed in the hands of Thomas Søndergård, Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Score and baton acting as map and compass, his navigational skills rarely had one in fear of stepping down the wrong pathway. Søndergård carefully laid out Sibelius’ motifs in the first movement, from the horn setting us out on our course to the plaintive bassoon solo at its heart. Woodwinds trilled, brass snarled. Taking the long view, Søndergård built up a good head of steam to make for an exciting climax to the movement.

Thomas Søndergård © Bjarke Johansen
Thomas Søndergård
© Bjarke Johansen

His pacing of the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto maintained momentum, leading to a subtle gear change for the famous finale. Strings gently whirred and motored while the first appearance of the ‘Swan Hymn’ on the horns was carefully balanced. When the theme eventually rang out, it was the BBCNOW’s double basses which made one sit up and listen, the rapid rattle of their spiccato notes almost having a col legno effect, so aggressively were they played. Eventually taken up by trumpets under the score marking nobile, the swan theme echoed around the hall. Søndergård never forced a blistering sound, even in the six mighty blows with which Sibelius closes the symphony (the same orchestra was much more bullish in Elgar 1 a week ago). It was like taking a familiar journey with a new acquaintance; one who is able to pick out things in the landscape you’d previously overlooked or come to take for granted. I’d happily have Søndergård as my guide through Sibelian landscapes again.

Throughout the evening, the ingredients for this successful account of the symphony had been there, but only intermittently. Another Sibelian swan – The Swan of Tuonela, the second of the Lemminkainen Legends – was allowed to drift rather aimlessly, despite some fine legato playing from Sarah-Jane Porsmoguer in the cor anglais spotlight.

Sibelius’ DNA was also traceable in the suite from Peter Maxwell Davies’ ballet Caroline Mathilde. The full-length ballet deals with George III’s sister, Caroline Matilda, who is sent to Copenhagen aged just 15 for an arranged marriage to King Christian VII, himself already in the throes of a mental breakdown. Caroline becomes involved in an affair with the king’s physician leading to a spiral of events. Søndergård played in the première of that work (at the Royal Danish Ballet, 1991) and the music obviously left a great impression on him. The Suite from Act II left rather less of an impression on me, I’m afraid. The most interesting aspects concern the orchestral palette Maxwell Davies employs. Some of the sparseness of the string writing and a melody echoed by clarinet and bassoon in tandem revealed some Sibelian fingerprints. Glockenspiel flecks, a slippery bass clarinet and rippling marimba figures were also notable.

In one movement, the composer punctuates intertwining female voices (the excellent Mary Bevan and Kitty Whately, seated within the orchestra) with flexatone to create a particularly eerie atmosphere at “The Execution”. The composer was affectionately received by the audience at the conclusion.

Walton’s Violin Concerto stood as the centrepiece of the concert. Composed for Jascha Heifetz, the initial stages of composition took place in Ravello. James Ehnes displayed immaculate line in playing that was very clean, crisp and cool, but this work needs more Italian sunshine and bel canto warmth than he was prepared to allow in. It was left to Søndergård to provide colour and shaping, the tarantella opening to the scherzo offering something of the bite required.