BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Storgårds – Delius, Bridge & Sibelius – Truls Mørk plays Rautavaara’s Towards the Horizon

A Village Romeo and Juliet – The Walk to the Paradise Garden [arr. David Lloyd-Jones; promulgated as the UK premiere of this version]
Towards the Horizon [UK premiere]
The Sea
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Truls Mørk (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 April, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This attractive mix of works might have found the Delius and Bridge pieces swapping places to the benefit of themselves and their neighbours.

John StorgårdsNevertheless the concert opened with Delius’s opera entr’acte, which was heard neither in its original orchestration nor in Thomas Beecham’s reduced scoring, but rather in David Lloyd-Jones’s recent arrangement. No information was provided in the programme about this version, so a little sleuthing was required. It seems that Lloyd-Jones, a champion of the complete opera, made his edition in 2005. In terms of forces used it comes somewhere between Beecham’s modest requirements – a practical means for smaller ensembles to play ‘The Walk’ – and the huge orchestra that Delius utilises in the opera itself. Notwithstanding that Lloyd-Jones has recorded ‘The Walk’ as the composer envisaged (for Naxos), he has been as equally pragmatic as Beecham while also taking advantage of most symphony orchestras’ recourse to triple woodwinds and three trumpets, plus a tuba, to give something richer than Beecham and therefore closer to Delius’s extravagant intentions. Lloyd-Jones’s adaptation was first performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Charles Mackerras, and it seems that Mark Elder and the Hallé have given it, too; if so, this rather questions the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s claim of a UK premiere.

Nevertheless, it was good to hear a fresh take on this mystical and haunting music, even if John Storgårds pushed things along a little too much at the opening, and was even precipitate, the playing a little unsettled, but soon finding greater expansiveness and a rapt divinity, and final serenity. Hopefully, Lloyd-Jones’s good intentions will allow ‘The Walk’ a greater number of performances, orchestras now not being put off by Delius’s budget-breaking requirements.

At the beginning of the concert’s second half, a similar haste rather undid the opening of Frank Bridge’s The Sea, not least the awe-struck motif that returns at the work’s end. Storgårds, like his Finnish compatriot Sakari Oramo (the BBCSO’s Chief Conductor designate), has explored a number of British pieces to advantage. In the case of The Sea (completed in 1911) both conductors have been fraternal with it. Storgårds harassed the opening, losing the music’s awe, and there were some fluffs and uncertainties in the execution. Yet the red-blooded approach brought the music to life with cinematic relish. If the suite doesn’t now do full justice to the progressive composer that Bridge (1879-1941) was becoming, it was enough, when performed in 1924, to astound a very young and precocious Benjamin Britten, who would become Bridge’s pupil; and there are also signs of Bridge looking beyond his native shores for musical inspiration. The second-movement ‘Sea-foam’ is a deft scherzo with a tilt towards Rimsky-Korsakov, and the torrent of the final ‘Storm’ anticipates Respighi’s orchestration of his Roman Trilogy. In between, the slow music of ‘Moonlight’ has it Englishness indebted to Elgarian wistfulness. The performance, once settled, was directly emotional with many felicitous touches, the power and mysteries of the sea fully revealed.

Truls Mørk. Photograph: Stephane de Bourgies/Virgin ClassicsStorgårds also brought music by two of his countrymen. Towards the Horizon (2009) is Einojuhani Rautavaara’s ‘second cello concerto’ and was composed for Truls Mørk, a 20-minute single movement that is lyrically charged (if harmonically gnarled), plaintive and contemplative, owing to Sibelius (particularly in the writing for woodwinds), and sometimes strenuous and combative. The cool sound of a vibraphone haloes a light-tinged aura at times, but maybe the other percussion, and the brass, are added too consciously to enliven things. It would be easy to hear Towards the Horizon as a swansong for Rautavaara, 81 when he completed this elusive work, and which is well-worth a second listen (Mørk and Storgårds have recorded it for Ondine). It was played with appreciation and sensitivity by Mørk and similarly accompanied.

Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony completed the concert, a regular in the BBCSO’s repertoire: Storgårds himself conducted it in 2007 and David Robertson led a magnificent account last season. Storgårds was less rigorous than Robertson (and his inclusion of the attacca between the first two movements enhanced the singularity of his reading). Nevertheless, Storgårds’s vibrant approach was compelling on its own terms, covering a gamut of responses, the music sometimes lighter on its toes than is usually the case, and also more sentimental. Lyricism was given con amore (if perhaps with too much affection) and dance-like passages had beguiling buoyancy. Fortissimos and climaxes opened out resplendently, thus the first-movement’s transition into a scherzo was thrilling, so too the finale, the ‘Swan Hymn’ opening out gloriously, the double bassists’ ‘bouncing’ bows vividly heard. The closing peroration was steadily built, although a demonstrative Storgårds’s podium activities created noise where silence should reign. And if the final chords were a little ‘soft’, this was overall a compelling performance, passionate and picturesque, sometimes carved from granite, sometimes pastorally descriptive, and leaving in no doubt as to the music’s masterpiece status and Storgårds’s commitment to it.

John Storgårds conducts one of this year’s ‘monster’ BBC Proms, on 9 August; with the BBC Philharmonic (as its Principal Guest Conductor) he leads Sibelius’s Symphonies 3 and 6, Grieg’s Piano Concerto (Steven Osborne the soloist), Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony and Delius’s Cynara (with baritone Roderick Williams). Crazy, in a good way!

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