Nigel Jarrett attended St David’s Hall for a night of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with BBCNOW, led by Thomas Søndergård.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No 5 in D minor
BBC National Orchestra Of Wales
Violin: Baiba Skride
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård
Not the least attribute of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is its function as a stopping-off point for conductors on an upward career path as well as those, such as Bryden Thomson and Richard Hickox, already established and therefore able if necessary to hoist an orchestra on to a higher plateau and keep it there. A few others have disappeared without trace. The certainty is that the tenure won’t be all that long. The present principal conductor, Thomas Søndergård, ended his six-year stint at this concert in splendid style before an orchestra performing as much for the occasion as in response to his lively promptings. Currently principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, he becomes its music director at the start of next season. Søndergård’s replacement at the BBCNOW has not yet been appointed.
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony has much to say about how music can speak directly of personal feelings or circumstances and be interpreted in more than one way. In fact, his reputation depended on the Soviet authorities accepting it as what he called in the subtitle – rather cravenly some would say who had never been as stressed out as he – A Soviet Artist’s Response to Justified Criticism. The late 1930s were a difficult time for artists, especially those whose work the commissars could not understand and, by that token, suspected of being subversive. The Soviet authorities (cultural department) always understood and knew what was good for the workers. The ‘justified criticism’ centred on the direction his music was taking, especially signalled by the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which everyone but the Soviet legates and the editors of Pravda (much the same thing) liked. Then he wrote the Fourth Symphony, even more ‘modern’ in shape and outlook than the opera, and which threatened to make matters worse. Shostakovich withdrew the Fourth and presented the Fifth as an act of contrition. But was it? Does that stentorian finale evince triumph or vengeance?
The advice given to the composer post-Lady Macbeth, that he should do as other State-endorsed composers were doing, is reflected only in the symphony’s formal structure, one which Haydn would have recognised. But it is loaded with anxiety, melancholy, faux-celebration, anger and regret. In an informative programme note, Pauline Fairclough, the expert on Russian music, reminded us that in Leningrad at the time almost all families were affected directly or other by political repression. Søndergård and the orchestra had the measure of this emotional mélange from the opening. Enter the BBNOW strings, unanimous to a fault, followed by woodwind, brass, and percussion as Shostakovish assembles his forces. The contrast between the first movement’s second theme on violins and then its more troubled repeat in the violas immediately suggested private rather than public feelings. Even when Søndergård rose to the moumental occasion of the movement’s finale (Shostakovich having modelled a colossal architectural span by re-ordering the recapitulation’s themes), it was rage and fatalism we thought of rather than anything triumphant. The second movement’s Ländler allowed solo violin (Lesley Hatfield) and oboe (Amy Roberts) to beguile us with grace, while the orchestra dealt with disturbing internal tensions.
The third movement Largo was beautifully played, the themes by oboe, clarinet (Robert Plane) and flute (Matthew Featherstone) over tremolo strings pointing to nothing but personal isolation. How thick the Soviet politicos were to think that the private here could be at all public. Never missing a trick, Søndergård was early into gear shift as preparation for the tormented climax of the symphony. Ironically, it had a hint of triumph if only because it was an orchestra’s farewell flourish to its regular conductor. As for speeds, ever an issue since Leonard Bernstein’s blockbusting account of the symphony in the composer’s presence, the arch-like shape of this final movement, as that of the first, is enhanced by acceleration and then deceleration. Truth to tell, Søndergård went his own way at the end, the tempo of less importance than the shattering pinnacle and what it represented. That it represents nothing less than rage against political savagery can no longer be denied. No doubt the dense Soviet tastemakers heard not pleading but something else of no import but, more importantly, in acceptable clothing. If not so overtly public that an imbecile could recognise it, music is always personal. But don’t tell the culture police if you’re ever around when they’re marching and singing.
The symphony’s link with Tchaikovsky, the other composer on the programme, was in the design of the first movement and its similarity to the opening movement of the Pathétique Symphony. In Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride seemed to conspire with Søndergård in taking turns at dictating the pace, ever thorough in essaying its often rhapsodic intensity. Whenever a particular episode was over, Skride pushed forward with scintillating dexterity, but never in pursuit of grandstanding effects and always with the orchestra in tune with what she was doing. She struck a sombre mood in the second movement Canzonetta while not neglecting its song-like character, and took the brilliant finale in her stride, if anything slightly underplaying its procession of dance-like themes and the exuberance they intended to express – a Russian exuberance, which is what must have offended the critics who disliked the work when it first appeared. Luckily, these were reservations based on a tradition established outside Russia, not oppressive ones arising from inside, like those Shostakovich had to endure. Skride played with exceptional composure, her attention to detail and emotional charge resulting in a performance as far from a contest as one could imagine, thanks in large measure to the attentions of the orchestra, everywhere conspiratorial and supportive.
The standing ovation at the end was for Søndergård. He’s worked well with the BBCNOW and leaves it in excellent shape.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His latest story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016, as was his first novel, Slowly Burning. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.
Photo: Courtesy of Betina Skovbro Photography