BBC Philharmonic|John Storgårds – Britta Byström’s Parallel Universes & Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony – Liza Ferschtman plays Sibelius’s Violin Concerto

Britta Byström
Parallel Universes [BBC commission; world premiere]

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Symphony No.3 in E-flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Liza Ferschtman (violin)

BBC Philharmonic
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 10 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In the weird and wonderful parallel universe of the Proms archive, it is extraordinary to discover that there have been more performances of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony in the first quarter of the 21st-century (with tonight, five) than in the whole of the 20th century (four).  Compare that with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, tonight making its 48th appearance, with Ida Haendel single-handedly delivering six of them herself.  Tonight should have been Jennifer Pike, but stepping-in for her was a Proms debutante, Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman.  I have a sneaking suspicion she will be invited back in any number of multiverses…

And what of these mentions of multiverses, I hear you ask?  Well that was the subject of the world premiere that opened the concert, the second of this year’s BBC commissions in honour of the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary (the first had been the Augusta Read Thomas’s last Sunday; with Grace-Evangeline Mason’s to follow with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on 5th September).

Britta Byström’s Parallel Universes took for its starting point fellow Swede (and American) Max Tegmark’s theory of multiple universes and his division of those ‘multiverses’ into four levels, which determined the music’s four-movement structure, given a commanding performance by the BBC Philharmonic under chief guest conductor John Storgårds.  Given its cosmological nature, I had perhaps expected more big bangs, but this was for the most part subtle (more Saturn with a touch of Mercury, rather than Mars in Holst’s terms), with tiny fragments repeated slightly differently like ricocheting canon, quiet to start with the resounding ping of a glockenspiel and the reedy tone of the oboe.  Like all great pieces that aim to explore eternity, Parallel Universes gently evaporates, as if it’s still happening but just out of earshot.  Byström took her bow from her seats in the side stalls.

Liza Ferschtman wore a flowing outfit which glinted in the lights, so carried on the starry feel of the first half, while transporting us to the chilly northern climes of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.  This was an assured debut, starting incredibly sweetly but not afraid to harden into more strident gestures nor to appear to suspend time in loosening the beat, particularly in the cadenza.  Perhaps because of the slimmed down forces there were passages that registered afresh, such as the solo viola and violin duet in the midst of the first movement, Ferschtman coupled with eloquent Kimi Makino.  Storgårds obviously has a soft spot for his fellow Finn, and encouraged his players to match Ferschtman’s commitment, from the rapt Adagio di moltoto the rumbustious Finale.  The audience was thrilled and wanted more, and Ferschtman obliged with one of her “favourite little pieces” – Kreisler’s Recitativo und Scherzo Caprice, a generous but deserved encore.

For the second time in four days the Prom ended with an E-flat-major Symphony which starts with a three-beat opening movement.  But Schumann’s Rhenish is more playful than Beethoven’s Eroica, given that he tries to wrong foot his audience by making it sound as if it’s in two beats to the bar.  Storgårds clearly loves this piece, and propelled it forward with enormous energy, leading to the pealing horn theme in the first movement – one of the most thrilling sounds in orchestral music, and filling the Royal Albert Hall not just with full-bodied sound but hope as well.  As well as power, Storgårds could command the softest playing so, after what annotator Stephen Johnson sees as the Rhine’s current in the rising theme of the Scherzo, the slow movement acted as a soothing balm.  And if Byström had conjured multiverses and Sibelius northern vistas, Schumann’s solemn fourth movement evoked the grandeur of Cologne’s cathedral, sonorously espoused by the trombones, before Storgårds unleashed the joyous finale.  He also made sense of what’s often regarded as Schumann’s too-dense orchestration, allowing string and wind themes to sound naturally together, making a virtue of what is clearly a unique timbre in orchestral writing and unmistakably Schumannesque.

Storgårds was clearly delighted with the performance, elbow bumping not only the leader and co-leader, but then on his return to the podium the leaders of the other string sections, before getting individual wind and brass sections to stand and timpanist.

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