Continuing Cardiff’s R17 theme to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales opened its St David’s Hall season under Thomas Søndergård with an inventive programme of Mosolov, Beethoven and Shostakovich, delivered with scintillating energy from the outset.

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan
Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

All that survives of Alexander Mosolov’s ballet suite Stal (Steel) is its first movement, The Iron Foundry. Little of the futurist early Soviet composer’s work is performed today, but the Foundry serves as a good introduction. It is a short but bracing work, lying in soundscape somewhere between Nibelheim and Philip Glass. The relentless toil of the factory machine is led by an extended percussion section, including choked tam-tam strokes and spectacular alternating blows between anvil and thunder machine. The horn section leapt to their feet to deliver the only real ‘tune’ of the work while the remainder of the orchestra accompanied
with precise brutality.

After shedding a desk of strings, the orchestra was joined by Russian-born pianist Igor Levit for Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, a work written amid the turmoil of Napoleon’s siege of Vienna in 1809. For such a familiar work, Levit and Søndergård engineered a performance of remarkable originality and, above all, sublime musicality. Played on modern instruments, this was crisp, clean and muscular Beethoven which sounded as revolutionary as Shostakovich’s celebration of revolution over 150 years later.

The opening movement was shaped into an engaging, cohesive whole by Søndergård, while
Levit and the orchestra interacted uncommonly closely to produce many beautiful moments. One of the most memorable of these came in the reappearance of the movement’s second theme near its end, which Levit played with exquisite pianissimo before accompanying the horns with utmost sensitivity amid soft string pizzicato. Elsewhere Levit cut a vigorous, animated figure, taking off from his stool between thundering chords. There was similar beauty to be found in the slow movement, where occasional lapses in intonation did little to spoil some very elegant wind phrasing. There was the odd smudge in the finale, which Levit set on its way like a rocket in the dramatically soaring rising broken chords, but the intensity showed no sign of relenting as the music sparkled onwards to a joyous end, closing a very memorable Emporer.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12 in D minor looks back to 1917 in curiously straight-laced four-movement form. Søndergård, himself a percussionist by training, gave ample opportunity for wind virtuosity at his brisk tempos and together with some thrilling brass and percussion playing, there was a huge amount to enjoy in this performance. Ensemble playing was largely unshakeable, and solos (particularly from principal clarinet and trombone) were delivered with great skill.

The symphony began with a string sound far more substantial than expected of the section’s 50 players before charging headlong into a breathless Allegro, where semiquaver runs were attacked with gusto from near the heel of the bow. Furious exchanges were thrown between the front eight players, while behind them the gravity of the movement’s recurring theme seemed to grow at each appearance. After a spacious, brooding slow movement where the intensity never threatened to sag, the finale was similarly dramatic. The machinations of the percussion section, led with bravura from the timpani and side drum, could be felt through the floor as the music galloped onwards.

This was a superb season opener, played to a large and relatively youthful audience. An encore of Anatoly Lydadov’s tone poem Baba Yaga made an attractive and entertaining end to the night.