Review: BBC NOW - Nielsen's Fifth Symphony @ Saint David's Hall
BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Nielsen's Fifth Symphony
St. David's Hall
Friday 12th April 2013
Thomas SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd has been the new principle conductor for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales since last year. But where has he been? His inaugural concert was back in October (which I can't believe I missed) and he was billed for only one concert at their home, the Hoddinott Hall back in February. I know conductors are very much in demand. I just thought his presence in Cardiff would be a lot more apparent, now that he has the lead conducting role.
Nonetheless, I finally was able to see him in the flesh at this month's concert. The programme was just two works: Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto and Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. It's been a season filled with fifth symphonies with the others by Sibelius (his inaugural concert), Shostakovich and Mahler to finish the season in June. I look forward to the Mahler very much.
The soloist for the Rachmaninov was none other than LlÅ·r Williams. You could go as far to say, he is Wales' premium pianist and is revered both nationally (Wales and UK) and internationally. It's been a long time since seeing him play. I recall many a concert with him as the soloist. Always a special event, not to be missed. He arrived on stage as he always does with that unmistakable noble swagger. I doubt I could describe it any other way. He walks with his arms slightly raised from his body and treats his hands as if they are bear paws, leaving lots of space for them as he moves about. This is even before he has sat down and began to play.
I was in tier three for the concert. A better place to observe the piano than the right side stalls, where you can't see any of the piano keys or playing by the soloist. His back was to us and SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd was in profile (a rare sight for me, with most conductors having their backs to the audience) but we got to see those hands when he went either up or down the keys to the high and low notes. It's a mammoth concerto, in fact lasting longer than the following symphony. If an overture isn't planned for a concert and it's just a concerto and symphony, you should know that the concerto will be lengthy and take up one half of the concert.
As always with Rachmaninov, it's very romantic and sentimental, which have been criticisms used against him in the past. At first, no one would play the piano for this concerto apart from the composer himself. It's filled with several cadenza solos for the instrument and had some recognisable music I recalled from somewhere. A lovely moment for just flute and piano almost had me teary, yet was gone as fast as it came. If you know the film Brief Encounter, you're bound to know that his Second Piano Concerto is featured throughout the film.
Before the concert, I spoke to a few other members of the audience whilst waiting for my plus one. One lady spoke of LlÅ·r in that, "you want to digest his sounds without looking at him". I was taken aback by this since she was referencing his less than handsome looks. It's about what he plays not how he looks. He is one of our best players. We can't just faff on about appearances, when such beauty emerges from the inside of that piano. His playing is as gentle as a mother's touch and can be as firm as a sergeant's fist.
The audience gave tremendous applause with most people giving a standing ovation, to which I joined in. I'd never given an ovation in the middle of a concert and it was strangely refreshing. LlÅ·r then came out once more for an encore, informed us he was to perform what I believe was Chopin's Prelude In C Minor, much to the delight of the audience. It had become a rare treat to see him once more. Can we hope for more appearances in Wales soon?
For the sake of national pride, SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd being Danish, choose Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. He is Denmark's most famous composer, yet out of the other Scandinavian countries, remains in the shadow of Grieg in Norway and Sibelius in Finland.
What you do get here is a frantic composition that deals with the frenzy and bitterness that comes out of war. There is no doubt a young Shostakovich would have heard works like this and become inspired. The immediacy and urgency here is nail-biting action with sinister calm moments. I don't know much Danish folk music or songs, but it sounds like a flavour of this has gone into this music. You know when it's Russian when it's Shostakovich or French for Debussy, so why not Danish for Nielsen?
In a post show Q & A, SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd answered a few of our questions. I wrote to him 'Who is your favourite composer?' and my plus one wrote 'What does it take to be a great conductor?' The latter wasn't asked, but mine was of sorts by another audience member. It turns out he loves Sibelius the most and he would love to do more from his canon. Fine with me. Sibelius is a joy. This orchestra after all, was the first in the world to record all of Sibelius' Symphonies. He is very special to the orchestra.
He also spoke of how LlÅ·r added 'time' to the concerto and how much ease it was playing with him, even thought they met the day before to rehearse. He emphasised the importance of new music and dispelled a few problems that lied in the attitude of the Danish people, their, "'I don't care' type of existence". But saying, "We must do music that is composed now," and not wanting it to die out rang very true in my ears, yet perhaps not in others.
So here's to more Sibelius and a smÃ¶rgÃ¥sbord of other Scandinavian delights.
IMAGE: [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons