Sakari Oramo’s Nielsen Symphony cycle with the BBC Symphony Orchestra has been notable for the imaginative nature of its programming, and this final instalment was no exception. It was an especially astute move to open with Tapiola (1926) – Sibelius’s last completed symphonic work and a telling foil to the Nielsen in its unwavering formal focus and violent expressive contrasts that yet merge into an indivisible totality. Such was the impression left by this performance, in which Oramo brought out the inevitability of the whole at a fleet yet never inflexible tempo which in itself emphasised the irresistible momentum making possible the most elemental of Sibelius’s climaxes and the most anguished of his conclusions. How to follow these was perhaps not the least of the problems affecting Sibelius's subsequent and many years of creative silence.
Whereas Sibelius faltered, Rachmaninov proceeded fitfully over his final quarter-century to produce several of his most durable compositions. While the Fourth Piano Concerto (1926) has never quite claimed its place among them, it remains a testament to its composer’s resolve in reassessing – without abandoning – the fundamental basis of his thinking. Opting for the 1941 second revision, Denis Kozhukhin steered a convincing course across the formal non-sequiturs of its opening Allegro, then brought no mean eloquence to a slow movement whose pathos is shattered by the vehemence of its central episode. Compared to its original incarnation the finale risks seeming piecemeal, yet Kozhukhin found a persuasive trajectory through to its almost apologetic apotheosis and then a pay-off of comparable nonchalance.
A fine showing for a piece whose raising of far more questions than it answers is its own justification. Oramo and the BBCSO were unstinting in support, Kozhukhin then returning for a melting take on Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Orfeo ed Euridice in Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription.
After the interval, a rare outing for April – England (1926), John Foulds’s compact yet vital evocation of Spring in its 1932 realisation which expands marginally on the piano original in duration and substantially in impact due to the intricacy and resourcefulness of the orchestration. Oramo has advocated Foulds consistently since his Birmingham tenure, and the controlled elation of this account was welcome confirmation of his music’s individuality as well as a timely reminder that it is only now beginning to find its way into the repertoire.
And so to Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony (1925) – the ‘Sinfonia semplice’ which has given even the composer’s doughtiest admirers pause for thought since its controversial premiere some 90 years ago. Much of the perceived ‘problem’ lies in its elusive playing with the archetypal symphonic format, something that Oramo was alive to in his relatively swift but never merely impassive rendering of the first movement – arguably Nielsen’s greatest such achievement in its integrating of disparate ideas and even more disjunctive emotions into an unsettling unity. The next three movements each offers a partial revisiting of this perspective, here with their potential diffusiveness avoided by a virtual absence of pauses as Oramo duly uncovered the anarchic whimsy of the ‘Humoreske’, the fractured (and fracturing) eloquence of the ‘Proposta seria’, and then the glancing irony of the ‘Thema con variazioni’ finale which yet contains the work’s most tragic expression and most bizarrely affirmative peroration in the symphonic literature: all conveyed here with that unforced decisiveness common to Oramo’s conducting of the cycle as a whole.
With the BBCSO playing at its responsive best throughout, this was a performance to savour as well as the fitting conclusion to a Nielsen cycle whose concerts have constituted some of the most distinctive musical events to be encountered in London over the past season.