Anthony Freud reportedly invited Tugan Sokhiev to be the Welsh National Opera's new music director after hearing him conduct La bohème in Reykjavik. I hope Freud's instinct is as sure as his impulse is quick, there was little in the Osetian's conducting of the WNO Orchestra in their St David's Hall concert to suggest why he might have been preferred to someone more experienced or even, dare I say, British.
Sokhiev, aged 24, was one of Ilya Musin's last pupils at the St Petersburg Conservatory, and here appeared sound, competent and musicianly – qualities one expects from a horse from that particular stable. He was at ease on the rostrum; the orchestra liked him and he accompanied Tasmin Little in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with absolute security – a much harder task than it looks. After a shaky start to Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict overture, he had the players eating out of his hand, a hand he by no means brandished ostentatiously or gratuitously. On the contrary, he impressed as a tactful, economical performer; a conductor "without grimaces", in Stravinsky's expressive phrase, who knew how to let the orchestra do what it could do well.
The trouble was that the results were, frankly, dull. The Berlioz overture should sparkle from the first bar, but didn't at all; Tchaikovsky's concerto, a show-off piece if anything, was almost discreet (until the finale, which Sokhiev and Little excerpted with good, old-fashioned ruthlessness).
As for the main test, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Sokhiev picked his way through it, whipping up excitement in the obvious places, but not generating any electricity in the opening or in long, featureless, episodes such as the "Scene aux Champs", which he made hard for himself by taking it too slow, then, as if realising his mistake, cutting four pages before the famous ending with the four timpanists. The march was thrilling, if too quick, and the "Witches' Sabbath", brilliantly played, gave the audience the frisson it had paid for. But, as a whole, it was run of the mill: Walpurgisnacht in Cardiff.
It is unfair, of course, to judge any conductor by a single concert or, perhaps, an opera conductor by such a test at all. But Tugan Sokhiev will surely have problems imposing himself at Welsh National Opera – which is a wonderful company, yet one burdened with repertory limitations that he is hardly equipped to remedy. His plans give no comfort in this respect: Cav and Pag and Don Giovanni are scheduled for next year (after taking up his post in January), Onegin in 2004. This looks like slipping into a rut, not rolling it out. I hope I'm wrong.