| Royal Albert Hall, London
|Royal Albert Hall, London, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP, United Kingdom|
Thursday 9-Aug-12 06:30pm
In his first Prom as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds bookends his programme with two Sibelius symphonies. Delius’s decadent Cynara serves as a vocal upbeat to Grieg’s evergreen piano concerto. The remaining element is new to these shores, an exciting and dynamic work from the prolific, unpredictable doyen of Nordic symphonists.
The Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic made their last appearance of this year’s Proms on Thursday night led by their newly appointed Principal Guest Conductor, John Storgårds. Hailing from Finland, Storgårds brought a mammoth Nordic programme with him of almost three hours in length, including two Sibelius symphonies, the UK premiere of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony, the Grieg Piano Concerto and a little known vocal work by Delius, Cynara.
The BBC Philharmonic have been going from strength to strength in recent years, producing some great recordings, broadcasts and live performances, both under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena, and with their many guests. The orchestra were on really good form in the first item, with their clean and polished sound allowing the harmonies of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 6 to ring around the hall. There’s a beautiful naturalness to this symphony; the ideas seem to flow together, and the chords to ring like the sounds of nature, but sadly there was something artificial about the performance. The orchestra phrased well, and their tone was rounded and balanced, but it was all too matter-of-fact. In the third movement the tense string rhythm, though a precise rendering of the notes on the page, lacked urgency and drive, and the dynamic range seemed tempered at both ends. The whole performance felt uninvolved, a feeling that was only exaggerated by the few brief moments of true musical engagement that graced the final movement.
Whether you’re a Delius fan or not, his orchestral song Cynara is a well crafted and and warm setting of Ernest Dowson’s text. Here the BBC Philharmonic provided some of the orchestral colour that had been missing in the Sibelius, but leader Yuri Torchinsky’s violin solos, which should soar over the orchestra, were barely audible, sounding quite weak and thin. Baritone soloist Roderick Williams was typically loving and his deep resonant voice filled the hall.
The high point of the programme was Steven Osborne’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. The powerful first movement was full of passionate anger, while the second brought a touching lovingness. The finale was a Nordic troll-dance, and full of fun and playfulness, at least when the soloist was taking the lead. The runs and arpeggios of the cadenzas were as clear and sparkling as glass and flowed like water in a fountain. Sadly the BBC Philharmonic’s playing remained very ordinary; it was very tidy and well balanced with Osborne, but nothing more special than that.
After the interval came the UK première of Nørgård’s Symphony no. 7. This work, in three movements, was dominated musically by a vast array of tom-toms, which created an interesting sound and sense of interplay with the orchestra. The work is full of interesting orchestral ideas, some jazzy, some more Nordic in sound, and the ideas connect together, flowing seamlessly from one to another. However, there’s no broader picture. Each new idea connects to the one which came before, and the one which comes after, but there’s no long-range architecture, and so the thirty-minute work seems to ramble aimlessly and drag on, before snuffing itself out suddenly like a candle.
Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3, which brought the programme to a close, bridges the romanticism of his first two symphonies and the austerity of his middle and later works. Its complexity makes it a challenge for any orchestra both technically and musically. The orchestra really got stuck in here, with some real spine-tingling pianissimos in the first movement and some beautifully nuanced woodwind solos, most notably from the principal flautist Richard Davis. There was some powerful brass playing too, and the strings came out of their shells in the second movement providing some magical moments. The final chord rang warmly around the hall, filling the space in its entirety with its beautiful major purity. But this was really too little too late. In spite of some lovely moments, this symphony too lacked personality and drive, and it was often only surface details that received the due care and attention, with accompanying details remaining forgotten.
Though the BBC Philharmonic played securely throughout the evening, Storgårds’ interpretation lacked direction and a strong musical personality, and the resulting performance was flat and ordinary. The finest performance of the night came in Osborne’s encore, his own arrangement of Schumann’s Widmung. This was pure delight, with a singing vocal line and a subtly coloured accompaniment – but the encore shouldn’t be the musical highlight of the concert.