In the first of two successive Proms appearances, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales showed its polish to advantage under Thomas Søndergård.
Their ease with Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony was abundantly clear. Søndergård drew fabulously stylish playing in a reined-in account with refinement at the top of his agenda. In music with as many critical assessments as conductors’ interpretations – including Ralph Wood’s “heroic failure” or Simon Rattle’s “longest scream in Western music” – the Seventh will always work its magic through the commitment of its executants. Søndergård brought rare focus and clarity to the Symphony’s unbroken span and logical whole, tempo transformations effortlessly woven into its organic growth. Particularly striking was the skill with which he shaped climaxes – neither overstated nor overly dramatic – which arrived as much by magnetic force as by well-judged pacing. Blend was another plus-point, brass and woodwind colouring the texture without disturbing equanimity, and the strings were magnificent, at times adding a layer of mystery, especially in polyphonic passages. The big moments were saved for the closing pages – the “grandest celebration of C major there ever was” – to crown a superb performance.
The restraint and mood of the Sibelius passed into the hands of Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov whose undemonstrative rendition of Rachmaniov’s Second Piano Concerto was ear-catching as much for its poetic intimacy as for its controlled passion. Its opening bars emerged as if by stealth, tensions mounting with each of the piano’s chord. But thereafter, at least in the opening movement, balance occasionally became an issue with much of Abduraimov’s arpeggio figuration obscured by the orchestra. Rapture and rumination were nicely caught in the time-suspended slow movement, and incisive brass brought colour to the exuberant Finale in which, despite crystal-clear articulation from Abduraimov, drama and excitement were kept at bay. Overall though an account of assurance and maturity, with further glimpses of Abduraimov’s artistry and introspection in Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor (the fourth of the Opus 19 Pieces) served as an encore.
Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony also highlighted the close relationship Søndergård has with BBCNOW. The first movement is an emotional roller-coaster which can flag. Søndergård pressed forward and shaped its trajectory with certainty; Robert Plane’s clarinet bewitched, strings variously soothed and alarmed the ear, while the perilously exposed piccolo that rounds the movement off found Eva Stewart in exemplary control. The graphic Scherzo unlocked the orchestra’s full power and brought forth a precision-engineered response. A more personal quality inhabits the Allegretto, with musical references to the composer and his muse and confidante Elmira Nazirova poignantly entwined. Solo horn and violin with assorted woodwind contributions brought this movement to life with spine-chilling effects, and the troublesome Finale, with its abrupt emotional gear-change, summoned fresh vigour from the musicians who evoked tortured souls and gyrating extroverts. Whatever your feel about this movement’s volte-face, its triumphant end was delivered with unequivocal jubilation.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms