Their virtuosic natures aside, the works presented by Thomas Søndergård and the BBC Symphony Orchestra tonight had in them diverse forms of references of both musical and extra-musical roots. The riches provided notwithstanding, it was an evening where much was desired.

Thomas Søndergård © Martin Bubandt
Thomas Søndergård
© Martin Bubandt

Commissioned to commemorate the tercentenary of the death of Purcell, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Britten’s The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Poul Ruders’ Concerto in Pieces gives ideas from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas a new attire, via a series of orchestral variations. In effect, the work shapes as a contemporary model of Britten’s celebrated work, with an added battery of instruments, e.g. ‘bending’ winds, in a new musical syntax. Although the synthesizer and ‘tubular bells and gongs lowered into water pails’ were seemingly left out, it was a work that could be enjoyed in its inventiveness and rhythmic vigour. For Søndergård’s no-nonsense direction, however, the Barbican’s acoustics were far from ideal in resonating the atmospheric and eerie sonorities of the slow variations, i.e. Variations 4, 7 and 8. Nor was the cumulative climax, the fugue of the final variation, entirely satisfactory due to its compromised clarity – ironic, given the purpose of the work to have all instruments heard.

Of the small number of piano works that Shostakovich wrote, the First Piano Concerto stands out as the obvious showpiece, not just for its required technical prowess but also for its quotations of classics, notably Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny” in the last movement. On paper, the choice of the Uzbekistan-born Behzod Abduraimov as the soloist seemed an impeccable choice. Abduraimov has a strong foot in the Russian tradition, most notably in works of Rachmaninov. Yet Shostakovich is no Rachmaninov, and the sensitive pianism of Abduraimov was a touch too heavy and Romantic for a work so pronounced in its acerbic zest and irreverent wit. Particularly noticeable was the smoothing of the gear-changing tempo contrasts that govern the dramatic edge of the last movement. For this, the Lento and Moderato, played with lyrical ardour, introduced a layer of newfound humanity.

In Richard Strauss’ ambitious Also sprach Zarathustra, no less than the presence of an organ, the strings divided in thirteen sections quoting a religious hymn, a tone row-based fugue and a Viennese waltz are required in depicting Nietzsche’s philosophical work of the same name. Lest we forget, the ever-popular opening, aka that Space Odyssey tune, is as monumental as tone painting can get.

Confronting a work that attempts to settle questions concerning the struggle between human desire, religion and nature in merely 35 minutes, Søndergård was wary not to go full Hollywood in the Sonnenaufgang. Impressive was the sense of poise in Von der großen Sehnsucht, and the waltz from Das Tanzlied did not digress out of its serious pretext. The playing was not always polished, as the edgy winds and brass – the trumpets in particular – often failed to blend into the rest of the orchestra. The fugue from Von der Wissenschaft and some orchestral attacks wanted in concentration and clarity, elements that could have helped the work with a better sense of direction. Yet things were eventually held together under the wise baton of Søndergård. The tonally ambiguous conclusion in no way prevented the audience from roaring its approval.