Thomas Søndergård’s first Prom of 2018 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales certainly had one of the more interesting programmes of the festival this year. Alongside Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor, we had two works by Lili Boulanger and the Nocturne by the little known Morfydd Owen. These rarer works will benefit, one hopes, from the exposure that a performance at the Proms may bring and certainly received a warm reception.

Thomas Søndergård
© Martin Bubandt

Lili Boulanger opened the evening; a career tragically ended by her early death at just twenty-four, she had already won the Prix de Rome, the first woman to achieve this significant honour. The Boulanger name lived on in her sister Nadia, a composer in her own right but best known as the teacher of some of the biggest names in music of the last hundred years, and who championed Lili's music after her sister's death.

D’un matin de printemps was, ironically, Lili’s last work, a lively fragrant piece just five minutes long. String texture was velvety as the music blossomed, the nub of the piece being blown from instrument to instrument, shifting form and evolving, never pinned down to one shape. There’s a sense of natural enigma to it, but the tone is unmistakably optimistic – a tragically ironic piece of growth and strengthening as the composer herself deteriorated. Just five minutes long, such a brief piece, but long enough to be sure what was lost by her premature death. The second was a more substantial work, D’un soir triste. More melancholic in tone, there’s some gorgeous moments within it, the harp particularly key especially during moments when it interplays with individual members of the strings. The performance from the brass seemed marginally un-nuanced in relation to the rest of the orchestra, but it was impressive to see the way in which Søndergård brought out and emphasised the piece’s intimacy in such a large venue.

Joining the orchestra on stage was pianist Bertrand Chamayou who gave an impeccably elegant performance of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. It’s a piece that cries out for restraint, and Chamayou’s subdued virtuosity was ideal, the notes cascading joyously, but never raucously in that terrific Presto. The first movement is a killer to play, requiring technical ability and lightning speed; Chamayou never slipped, entirely in control of his instrument. An absence of break between movements allowed Søndergård to bring the piece seamlessly together; sensitive tempi and strong performance from the woodwind strengthened the performance of the work.

Morfydd Owen is another sad example of a female composer cut short far too early. Only twenty-six when she died, she left behind a substantial corpus which is too infrequently performed. What stands out in her Nocturne is the beautiful writing for woodwind, subtle but virtuosic, and the advanced nature of the orchestration as a whole, hinting at works that might have matched Strauss if only she had had the time. The BBCNOW played the Nocturne with conviction, the dynamics controlled and the balance sensitive. At fifteen minutes long, it’s a work we could do with hearing more regularly in the concert hall.

Schumann revised his Symphony no. 4 in D minor in 1851 and this revision tends to dominate; Brahms, however, did not agree with the Schumanns that it improved on the 1841 original and it is perhaps due to his championing – and publication of the original score, despite Clara’s objections in the 1880s – that we heard it in this concert, only the second occasion in Proms history that the original has been performed. Søndergård’s reading was lithe and fluid; while clearly recognising the structure of the work, he allowed the music to flow in a naturalistic progression, though definition was sometimes an issue, particularly within the violins. Søndergård emphasised mood and colour, capturing Schumann's bright palette and drawing perky, vivacious playing from the brass, now very much on top form. A strong finale to an interesting and thought-provoking concert.