Prom 22: BBC Philharmonic – John Storgårds conducts Isle of the Dead, Midnight Sun Variations, The Year 1905

The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Outi Tarkiainen
Midnight Sun Variations [BBC co-commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.11 in G-minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

BBC Philharmonic
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 4 August, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The UK’s first public performance of the 1915 version of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was always going to be a hard act to follow. Not that the present evening was without its Finnish connections. John Storgårds, himself a notable Sibelian, had chosen a mostly Russian programme, not music one necessarily associates with him, but at its core was new music from Finnish Lapland.

John StorgårdsPhotograph: Marco BorggreveOuti Tarkiainen (yet another fashionable thirty-something) was one of the arrangers behind 2017’s Charles Mingus showcase so we might have been in for the kind of MOR fare with which Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish SO contextualized (or sought to camouflage?) their Sibelius the previous night. The programme booklet gave little away beyond biography and wide-eyed aspiration – “I see music as a force of nature that can flood over a person and change entire destinies” – so it wasn’t clear where we were going. In the event Tarkiainen provided what sounded like super-sophisticated background music for a nature film. There were skirls and swirls (Rautavaara tinged with Ligeti) and a penultimate section so plainly derived from Sibelius’s Tapiola that one assumes it was meant as a tribute rather than merely pinched, something along the lines of Ragnar Söderlind’s Eighth Symphony perhaps? The quiet coda confirmed a real ear for sonority and atmosphere whatever its precise source.

The atmospherics were rather lacking in the Rachmaninov which launched the concert. The opening section was coolly articulate and watery but the music never rose to the heights of passion in the imploring passage where the soul is seen grieving for what is lost. The composer wanted a bigger dramatic contrast and doubtless expected more in the way of string tone.

It was much the same story in the Shostakovich, middle-of-the-road in matters of tempo and well-received at the close by the virtually full house (a gratifying statistic given the absence of a Concerto). The high decibels of the Finale even engendered a partial standing ovation. And yet the previous movement had failed to engage that large proportion of the audience seemingly determined to stop proceedings with a welter of small industrial accidents, coughing fits and non-stifled ring-tones. On the platform little attempt was made to go for broke or to ape a Russian sonority. Too often the music hovered phlegmatically around mezzo-forte with many details, even the cor anglais solo, technically well-presented without being ideally subtle or emotive. Arguably the most intriguing part of the performance came at the very end with the use of properly-pitched bells high up in the Gallery (borrowed from the Liverpool Philharmonic). The biggest of the piece’s climaxes was thrilling enough to send us away happy.

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