Sakari Oramo’s season-long traversal of Carl Nielsen’s six Symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra reached its penultimate stage in a further judiciously planned concert framed by Ravel at his most unequivocal. That said, this was no powerhouse rendition of La valse (1920) – rather a cumulatively intense account such as unfolded from the disembodied remoteness of its opening pages, through an increasingly fraught succession of waltz episodes, then on to an apotheosis in which the “city of dreams” was wholly engulfed by an upsurge of brutal finality.
Although it has long been the most popular of the cycle, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (1921) is a difficult piece to bring off in terms of its almost Classical formal poise allied to its capricious expression. More subtle in his pianism than one recalls from earlier performances, Alexander Toradze pointed up the first movement’s emotional contrasts via rhythmic fluidity held in check by Oramo’s astute accompaniment – the daring accelerando at the close being consummately brought off. The ‘Theme and Variations’ second movement was at its most perceptive in a poetic fourth and in the fatalistic coda, and if the finale hung fire in the teasing passage between rapt statements of its ‘big tune’, the coda had the right exhilaration. As an extra, Toradze, recalling someone now lost to him, offered a searching rendition of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor (Kk32).
After the interval, the psychological drama of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (1922) was assuredly not played down in an underlying conception that fused its nominally contrasting two movements into a fluid as well as overarching whole. Oramo set a relatively swift tempo for the first half of the first movement – its pulsing expectancy taking on a fateful tread at the entry of timpani and side-drum, and, in the ensuing sections, an ideal balance between animated activity from woodwinds against the stealthy progress of strings. The Adagio duly continued at an almost unbroken pulse, the eloquence of the BBCSO’s antiphonal violins holding good right through a climax topped by David Hockings’s fitful propulsion in the side-drum’s improvised assault; tension over the final pages eloquently falling away as clarinet intoned its searching plaint.
The second movement began as a trenchant Allegro with little relaxation for the second theme, before a surging initial climax in which Oramo (rightly) retained timpani strokes deleted from the critical edition. The Presto section might have had greater explosive force at its apex, yet the strings’ subsequent regaining of an expressive equilibrium was searchingly conveyed. The woodwinds’ musing transition into the Allegro then had a consistency equal to the controlled abandon of the closing stages, and the final bars were thrilling in their unforced affirmation.
Following this humanistic struggle with the ostensibly mechanistic process of Ravel’s Boléro (1928) might have been thought a deliberate provocation. If so, it nevertheless justified itself through the daring of such a juxtaposition, as well as a reading of the latter whose concern for phrasing and nuance (both usually left to fend for themselves) was balanced by its seamless unfolding from inaudibility to a culmination immutable in its presence. Committed playing by the BBCSO helped ensure this orchestral tissue was never for a moment without music.