Musical works can act like waypoints in a composer's career, and here were markers of a beginning, a middle and an end. Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, first heard in 1901, signalled the start of his musical maturity and success after a troubling period in his life. Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony appeared months after the death of Stalin, after which the composer's work travelled different musical paths. And Sibelius' own final symphony, his Seventh, marked the end of a journey in the form and a high water mark which, in his last 30 years, he never felt able to successfully approach again. A beginning, middle and end are, famously, a recipe for a good story. The unwritten rules of concert programming in this case placed end first, beginning second and middle last, in this first of two Proms visits from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The way musical stories are told relies on other ingredients too, and by the concert's end, it seemed clearer what they might be.

Thomas Søndergård and the BBC NOW © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Thomas Søndergård and the BBC NOW
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Sibelius' Seventh seems so final a statement that it feels strange to hear it first. Its long, organic and unfurling logic and lines allowed the orchestra to shine immediately. They gave conductor Thomas Søndergård a clean and ringing sound that rendered Sibelius' orchestral writing transparent but wonderfully warm. Strings, particularly, shone, combining this clarity with legato flow that helped Søndergård achieve the sense of natural growth and pace he was clearly after. He joined up the parts of this famously ingenious structure with great assurance, and the ending he arrived at was one of contented finality. 

Some hear a darkness in the conclusion of the Seventh that wasn't really entertained here, but there's no doubting the certainty of the blazing light that ends Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, here given a serious and mature performance by Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov. In spelling out the sincerity and depth of emotion in the piece, he totally avoided pulling it around, relying instead on nimble fingerwork to bring out the narrative cleanly. Injections of colour, though, came a little more reliably from the orchestra: beautifully muted tone made a real highlight of the soaring accompaniment of the violins at the end of the second movement, leading the ear to places that perhaps Abduraimov didn't. His choice of encore – a Nocturne by Tchaikovsky – made it clear what a serious, introverted mood he was in.

Most composers haven't had their music invested with retrospective stories to the extent that Shostakovich has, and it can be easy to look for a certain narrative in the work, when actually its ambiguity is the draw for many listeners. The Tenth Symphony is, for better or worse, forever associated with Stalin, and not without reason. Shostakovich hadn't produced a symphony in almost a decade, and a bitter, violent, ultimately triumphant one burst forth within months of the death of the "Leader and Teacher". Whatever one thinks the music is about, though, its performance has to convey some sense of being about something, but here it lacked that directness of storytelling, of cogent emotional narrative. The playing was stunning – that same refined string playing made the first movement lean and pointed. Similarly, the short, terse scherzo can rarely have sounded so ferociously bitter, characterised by stinging, brilliantly articulated wind and brass work. But the third movement highlighted the storytelling problems, an enigmatic, varied one whose meanings have only recently been further explored, it needs a sense of thread and development. Each episode within it was spun with tremendous attention to atmosphere and articulation, but it was played with a closer attention to the printed detail of the score than to any sense of what it might all add up to. The very greatest musical performances give us a sense of composers – at whatever points in their lives – spinning a tale, of things leading on to other things because it makes sense for them to do so, and this was a Tenth that fell short of that ideal.

***11