The programming of this concert seemed to be designed to show up the similarities between Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, rather than accentuate their differences. But this might have been more effective if Thomas Søndergård had taken a more incisive approach in his conducting, rather than feathering the string sound so smoothly that much articulation was lost, and the finer points of the inner parts tended to disappear in a delicate, pastel-shaded wash of sound.

Thomas Søndergård © Bjarke Johansen
Thomas Søndergård
© Bjarke Johansen

Haydn’s Symphony no. 28 in A major was written in 1765 when he was 33, almost exactly the same age as Mozart when he wrote the “Jupiter” Symphony, and three years younger than Beethoven when he wrote his first piano concerto. The first movement, in 3/4, plays with the possibility that it might be in 6/8, with witty syncopation between the strings (which favour the latter interpretation) and the oboes and horns (which favour the former, keeping up a resolute three-in-a-bar). Søndergård brought out this tension well, but with a crisper string attack it might have been even more effective. Tinkling away underneath it all was Robert Court’s elegant harpsichord continuo.

The symphony’s slow movement is for strings alone, the violins being muted, and here Søndergård brought the volume so far down that it challenged St David’s Hall’s excellent, pin-drop acoustics.

Haydn’s firm roots in the Hungarian folk tradition came through in the minuet and trio third movement in the use of “bariolage”, a technical term in string technique that means playing the same note alternately on adjacent strings. Here, led by Lesley Hatfield, who took the trio movement as a solo, the strings articulation was at its best. However, more of a hop, skip and jump would have been welcome in the presto finale.

Benjamin Grosvenor came onto the stage as a tiny, waif-like figure, and settled on the piano stool like a nervous pupil for the long wait till his solo entry in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. But his opening phrases were crisply articulated, almost choppy in his use of staccato, reminiscent of reports (by Beethoven) of Mozart’s keyboard playing. This early concerto is relatively lightly scored, and the balance between piano and orchestra was good, although occasionally the rhythmical rapport between the two tended to slip. Grosvenor plays with sweetness and limpidity, but sometimes more weight and attack would be welcome. The slow movement was very slow indeed, with phrases tending to droop and sag, but with the lively rondo of the third movement both articulation and unity between soloist and orchestra were restored, and the joyous main theme came back after each excursion with wit and energy. Grovesnor delighted and puzzled the audience with a brief encore, which turned out, after enquiry, to be “The Fountain and the Clock” by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou.

With the “Jupiter” Symphony it is possible to mistake late Mozart for early Beethoven (at least that can be the temptation), but a different link could and should be made, between the storm and stress of the symphony and the even stormier passages in Don Giovanni. An opera orchestra might perhaps have made more of the explicit drama, the mood-swings and the violent entries of the first movement than the BBC NOW managed on this occasion. The beautiful Andante slow movement walked rather than danced, and I missed the melancholy under the tranquillity that this movement should bring. The fierceness and bite of the minuet was also underplayed. It seemed that the large string section overwhelmed what might have been crisper and tauter with a smaller band. In many ways, there are lessons in attack and articulation demonstrated by practitioners of early music that could be brought across advantageously to the classical symphony orchestras.