For what would have been his second concert this week with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Santtu-Matias Rouvali was once again unable to conduct due to illness. In his place was Thomas Søndergård, conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The programme was unaltered.
In November 2009, I heard Søndergård give an outstanding account of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Expectations therefore were high. ‘Šárka’ from Smetana’s Má vlast seldom gets an airing away from the cycle, but it makes for a fine and dramatic concert opener. Historically Šárka is the legendary amazon whose female army takes on and massacres the (male) army of the warrior Ctirad after he becomes obsessed with her and his army is much the worse for drink. On this occasion its inclusion certainly got the afternoon off to a fizzing and energetic start but sometimes bluster substituted for polish. That said, there was a fine clarinet solo from Mark van der Wiel and an atmospherically theatrical moment of suspense before the final cataclysm.
By contrast with ‘Šárka’, Brahms’s Violin Concerto is hardly unknown territory, but this performance would make it few new friends. Vilde Frang has attracted numerous awards; however on this occasion she did not do herself justice. The tempo for the first movement may be marked Allegro non troppo, one of Brahms’s characteristically ambiguous markings, but this was crucifying in its slowness. One is reluctant to rule something out on grounds of tempo alone but only the very greatest violinists can sustain the music at this speed and Frang compounded her problems by a tendency to linger still further. On the plus side there was an agreeable dolce quality to much of her playing with, at times, an intimate interaction with the orchestra, but overall it was a very long listen and her rhythmic waywardness must have made her difficult to accompany. The slow movement came off rather better with fine individual contributions from woodwind principals, notably Gordon Hunt’s sensitive oboe solo. However, the Hungarian finale hardly lifted one’s spirits, sounding lumpen rather than exuberant.
Christmas is upon us and we all love The Nutcracker, so the opportunity to hear 45 minutes of it, covering nearly all the best-known numbers – ‘plums’ – should have been an enticing prospect and a welcome antidote to those rather too-casual renditions one often hears in the theatre. In the event this was largely routine, the ‘Miniature Overture’ rushed and lacking in delicacy, and the arrival of the Christmas Tree also pushed forward with little sense of awe-struck magic ... and so it went on. There were better things to come in the Divertissement with its various dances – for instance in ‘Dance of the Reed Flutes’ where Samuel Coles and Jill Crowther (flute and cor anglais respectively) breathed life into their cameos, also Keith Bragg’s characterful piccolo – but for the most part there was a plodding quality even to the magical ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ which failed to build momentum and excitement. Curiously, one point where Søndergård found true delicacy was ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ though it was a pity we could not have had a vocal addition as in the ballet proper; it adds real frisson. Finally, a plaudit for some fabulous harp playing from Bryn Lewis.