This late-season concert in the intimate BBC Hoddinott Hall was Thomas Søndergård’s first as Principal Conductor Designate of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, following his appointment to the role this week. The concert featured three pieces all looking to the future, in some way: Sibelius’ En Saga, a Prokofiev Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Søndergård will inherit the Orchestra from Thierry Fischer in September 2012, and tonight’s performance will give both audience and players much to look forward to.

Thomas Søndergård with BBC NOW © Betina Skovbro
Thomas Søndergård with BBC NOW
© Betina Skovbro

The tone poem En Saga is recognisable as the work of Sibelius within the opening bars, with dissonant woodwind interjections punctuating hurried but finely controlled pianissimo arpeggios in a string section which was impressive all evening. Despite his admiration for the contemporary symphonic poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss, Sibelius moves away from the direct narrative of works such as Don Juan, and gave few clues as to the intended programme of this evocative work. Its title (meaning ‘A Fairytale’) and his comments describing it as “An expression of a state of mind” leave much speculation to the listener. Søndergård’s bold conducting drew great power from the Orchestra in dramatic passages, with aggressive brass crescendi drawing out the heroic elements of the piece. The conclusion of the work, however, featuring a fine clarinet solo above delicate articulation in the strings, created an entirely different atmosphere, hinting in an autobiographical sense at the personal crises faced by the composer around the time of the En Saga’s composition. The contrasts of the work were very effectively highlighted by Søndergård’s close reading, backed up by excellent musicianship throughout the Orchestra.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 followed, featuring Baiba Skride as soloist. A work written in the middle of a golden period for the composer, the Concerto flirts with modernity, but not at the expense of a number of lyrical themes in the romantic tradition. These more traditional passages are seldom allowed to linger, instead being swept into a storm of aggressive pizzicato or skittish semiquavers. This affords the soloist great opportunity for displays of virtuosity, and Skride obliged magnificently. The Concerto strays from the classical tradition in placing a scherzo as the central movement, and it was here that the solo playing was most brilliant, with wild flourishes, sharp double stops and intricate displays of technicality cascading from one another. The Orchestra matched the excellent Skride in being able to snap between themes instantly, which hinted at excellent rapport between conductor and players. Søndergård’s choices of tempo and tonal shading were superb, achieving ideal balance and support for Skride, whose playing was exquisite throughout.

If the Prokofiev placed the conductor behind the soloist, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’ gave Søndergård ample opportunity to make his mark on a classic. This he did, often eschewing convention in favour of his own fine interpretation. This was particularly evident in the opening movement, where the pastoral elements of the second subject were given particular freedom to sing in the flute solo, before being taken up lovingly by violins; it was a shame, though, that the repeat was not taken. Around the birdcalls and gentler moments, the Orchestra was very powerful, built upon a magnificent foundation from the trombone section, which made a wonderful sound throughout. The brass section was outstanding again in the fourth movement, powering the music forward with great attack.

Throughout the Symphony, Søndergård repeatedly drew out small details often overlooked in performances of this work, creating a convincing and original interpretation. His tempo for the famous Largo was brisk, but a cor anglais solo of beautiful tone and phrasing communicated the required effect brilliantly. His ability to find and draw out small, often overlooked details was quite refreshing, which helped create a very strong and original reading. Though not quite the perfect performance (some of the large tutti entrances were not quite together, and there were a few instances of players not quite anticipating a change in dynamic or tempo) this was a very fresh and enjoyable New World, and it received the reception it deserved. In the introduction to the concert, comment was made on how enthusiastic the Orchestra is for playing under Søndergård. The combination of his vision and assured conducting and their willingness to follow is sure to produce many years of happy music making.