Archive for Thomas Søndergård

BBC NOW: Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at St David’s Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I took my seat in St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård. It was an all-Russian menu, and very enjoyable it was.

The first course was the Violin Concerto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It’s a familiar work but was ravishingly played by Latvian soloist Baiba Skride, who seem to revel in the virtuosic elements of this work, as well as bringing out the lyricism in the more romantic passages. The Orchestra were on top form too. I particularly enjoyed the way they dealt with the introduction of the famous `big tune’ in the first movement: brisker and with less of the tendency to wallow in it than you find in many performances.

The, after the wine break, we had the main dish for the evening, the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is a very famous work and is perhaps the most accessible of all the Shostakovich symphonies. It was an immediate success with Soviet critics and public alike when it was first performed in 1937, and though it marked Shostakovich’s return to favour with the authorities after his denunciation by Stalin, this work has the composer’s very characteristic sense of things not being quite as they seem on the surface. Indeed, in this and many other of his compositions, seems to manage to say one thing at the same time as saying the exact opposite of that thing; nowadays this might be called `constructive ambiguity’. This is especially in the finale, in which the sense of triumph is almost a parody of itself. Overall the Fifth Symphony is a sombre work, the dark undertone establish right at the start with an imposing theme on the cellos and double basses, but it has passages of great beauty too, especially in the slow third movement. Like all great symphonies – and this is one of the greatest – it takes you on a journey full of of excitement and interest. The 45 minutes or so of this performance seemed to fly by, and its ending was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation from many in the audience.

It’s interesting to consider that only 60 years had elapsed between the composition of these two pieces, but what different worlds they represent!

Anyway, the full strength National Orchestra of Wales, produced a gripping performance of this tremendous work with every section playing at the top of its form and the finale really brought the house down. But you don’t have to take my word for it – the whole concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next Tuesday, 12th June.

This concert is the last of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales season at St David’s Hall and indeed the last of at St David’s with Thomas Søndergård as Principal Conductor (though he will be conducting the Orchestra a couple of times at the Proms this summer). I wish him all the very best for his future musical adventures. It’s also the last concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales I’ll be attending before departing for Ireland. I don’t think I’ll get much chance to hear them after I’ve relocated, so let me take this opportunity to thank every single member of the Orchestra for the many performances I’ve enjoyed over the years, and to wish them well for the future.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Posted in Music with tags , , , on January 23, 2017 by telescoper

“Darkness, turbulence and an unmistakable undertone of violence” –  what could be a more fitting way to spend a Friday evening in January 2017 than listening to the epic Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. So apt is this work for the times we’re living through that it was performed on Thursday evening by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can catch that performance on the BBC iPlayer here. I’ve always preferred my music live rather than recorded, so I went to St David’s Hall on Friday to hear it performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Thomas Søndergård. This was recorded live, and will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Friday 27th January, and available thereafter on iPlayer so you can compare the two versions if you want to.

Before the main course, we heard the excellent BBC National Chorus of Wales singing four motets by another late Romantic composer, Anton Bruckner. The pieces chosen were all settings of latin religous texts: Locus Iste, Os Justi, Christus Factus Est, and Ave Maria. These are beautiful works, and interesting because of the many references they include to earlier musical forms, especially in the Os Justi which is in the Lydian mode, harking back to what at the time it was written (1879) was an obsolete church scale.

These four works last only about 15 minutes in total. That explains why the bar staff weren’t taking interval orders before the concert started – there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to put the drinks out before the first half finished. Fortunately, my seat was near the door of the auditorium so I was able to make a quick escape and get my usual glass of wine at the bar before most of the audience.

And then the Mahler. What can I say? It’s another huge symphony, in four movements lasting about eighty minutes, requiring a huge orchestra including tubas, bass trombones, harps and varied percussion including cowbells, a celesta, and of course the famous hammer..

I mentioned earlier on that I much prefer live concerts. One of the things that I remember vividly from last Friday was the sight of the huge wooden mallet that is used to deliver the “hammer blows of fate” in the final movement, which loomed ominously on stage in front of the percussion section throughout the performance. When it was finally deployed it came down with such force that it buckled the wooden box underneath, but even when it wasn’t being used it had a powerful stage presence. That’s one kind of experience you’ll never get from a recording.

The first movement of this Symphony (Allegro energico) is a battle between a strident march theme and a passionate romantic melody, though the conflict is interrupted by a lengthy passage of remarkable peace and tranquility. In Mahler’s original version of this work, the Scherzo movement (in which the two main themes return in an even more agitated struggle) came second, but on reflection he swapped it with the Andante, which is measured and reflective but still with an undertone of foreboding. I’m not sure if anyone ever performs the original ordering anymore, but out of curiosity I’d like to hear it performed that way. The tonality and thematic content of the Scherzo mean it is more closely related to the Allegro than the Andante, which has led some to argue that, despite what Mahler thought, it should be played second. I don’t think that follows necessarily, but it would be interesting to hear how it works.

The final movement is vast, intense, emotionally draining and absolutely wonderful. The mood changes continually from terror to euphoria, from triumph to tragedy and from optimism to despair. Many people I know dismiss Mahler’s music as “angst-ridden”. I don’t think you can describe all his compositions like that, but it’s fair to say that this symphony is bleak and ultimately nihilistic in its despair. The hammer blows of fate (three in the original composition, with one later removed by Mahler) signal the end of hope, but the end is a whimper rather than a bang. The music subsides into nothingness,  its light fading  into the “Dark Night of the Soul”.

It’s no surpise that this is often called the “Tragic Symphony”, but however bleak the message may seem, it’s always uplifting to experience the “artistic conquest of the terrible”. If civilization is to survive in a world filled with suffering and arbitrary cruelty, then we have to come to terms with reality, not shy away from it. Mahler is one composer who isn’t afraid to tell it the way it is.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was on top form for this concert – with outstanding work by the brass section in particular – and were marshalled with great vision and a mastery of detail  by Thomas Søndergård. I’m sure I’ll remember this performance for a very long time.