Prom 35: Storgårds conducts Sibelius, Delius, Grieg & Nørgård

Composer Portrait
Per Nørgård
String Quartet No.6 (Tintinnabulary)
Dancers around Jupiter
Musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music: Edward Brenton & Qian Wu (violins), Matthew Kettle (viola) & Joe Zeitlin (cello)
Gillian Blanc, Miriam Rintelen, Daniel White & Mélina Zéléniuc (saxophones)
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 35
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Per Nørgård
Symphony No.7 [UK premiere]
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52

Roderick Williams (baritone)

Steven Osborne (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

John StorgårdsIt may have commenced at 6.30 but that does not necessarily make it an early-evening Prom: the present concert finishing almost three hours later, in what proved to be an auspicious debut at these concerts for John Storgårds as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic that took in three staples of the Nordic repertoire as well as a notable UK premiere.

The latter was the Seventh Symphony by Per Nørgård – written to mark the inauguration of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s new residence, Koncerthuset, in January 2009 and a compact three-movement piece which allies the motivic rigour of his more recent orchestral works with a formal obliquity in a renewed Classicism of teasing unpredictability. So the first movement offsets its sonata-form trajectory with a gradual decrease in momentum from the initial explosion of activity to its distant recollection near the close – here, as throughout the work, the 14 tom-toms playing a crucial role in marking-off changes of context and expression – then the second movement contrasts its plaintive opening clarinet and oboe solos with an eruptive C major chord for brass and strings in a ternary design whose initial inwardness can only be fitfully maintained, while the finale has the outline of a sonata-rondo in the way that its dance-like refrain is glimpsed in a succession of increasingly tenuous reappearances and false endings until the movement simply stops dead in its tracks.

The performance was a probing one – Storgårds being mindful to preserve a sense that this is music, whatever its diversity of content and intricacy of texture, in a process of constant transformation. The BBC Philharmonic duly responded with playing of assurance and commitment, not least among the expanded woodwind section and a percussion complement that is deftly deployed even by Nørgård’s standards. Perhaps the second movement was just a little on the swift side, its inherent contrasts slightly reined-in as a result, yet there could be no doubting the authority that the conductor brought to this music – as he will doubtless do with the Eighth Symphony, its world premiere he directs in Helsinki next month and the UK one on 9 March next year with the BBCSO.

Recent illness and work commitments meant that Nørgård was unable to attend the concert or take part in the Composer Portrait (Ivan Hewett in his stead to talk with Andrew McGregor), though the composer did record some characteristically laconic observations for the latter event which otherwise featured two of his chamber works. With its subtle interplay of shifting timbres and harmonies within a varied and often combative single movement, the Sixth String Quartet (1986) is a harbinger of the formal retrenchment to come, while Dancers around Jupiter (1995) is one of several contributions to the medium of the saxophone quartet: its mainly vigorous and robust outer movements surrounding one of rapt pathos whose melodic content is derived from a computer simulation of cosmic winds around the planet Jupiter. The performances, by musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, were both technically immaculate and unfailingly attuned to the composer’s creative vision – leading one to hope that more of Nørgård’s vast and wide-ranging output will make it to these shores than has previously been the case.

Roderick WilliamsThe Proms’ current focus on Delius was also evident with a revival of Cynara – his setting of Ernest Dowson’s typically fanciful and ultimately fatalistic evocation of doomed love, discarded from Songs of Sunset in 1907 and completed with the aid of Eric Fenby 22 years later. The result is one of its composer’s most cohesive and affecting vocal works, not least through the luminous poise of orchestral writing that caresses the vocal line without in the least diffusing it, though with Roderick Williams rendering the latter with exemplary clarity and expressive depth, this reading could hardly have been other than a persuasive one.

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondAfter this, Steven Osborne gave an account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto which, if not a striking perspective on this most archetypal warhorse, had its share of felicities – not least Osborne making the first-movement cadenza almost a second development, or his unforced eloquence in the heightened reprise of the Adagio’s main theme. The wistful central interlude of the finale benefited from not being taken at a markedly slower tempo and, while there was hint of greasepaint in its climactic return at the close, the integration of soloist and orchestra more than offset any overt rhetoric. Storgårds ensured a committed response, with some fine contributions from the orchestra principals. As an encore, Osborne offered his own transcription of Widmung, Schumann’s song.

Framing the concert were two symphonies by Sibelius. Odd that the Sixth Symphony should increasingly be chosen to open proceedings, as its inward profundity is hardly likely to register on an audience in the process of ‘settling down’, yet Storgårds made the most of the opening movement’s seamless interplay of reflection and purposefulness on the way to its wrenching coda. The second movement could have had greater continuity between its variants on the woodwind’s whimsical main motif, while the canonic trio sections of its tensile successor were commendably precise. The finale was for the most part successful, but Storgårds’s restraint in the extended coda made its inconclusiveness unduly provisional. Applause came too early into Storgårds’s conducted silence.

Now probably the least performed of the cycle (at least in the UK), the Third Symphony makes for a worthwhile rounding-off of a programme. The highlight here was an Andante whose elusive transitional passages more than usually contributed to the ominous, even unsettling nature of the whole. The first movement featured some rapt playing from the strings at the start of the development, while the finale’s scherzo-like initial half had a pulsating intensity such as made the comparably restrained manner of the ensuing peroration the more unsatisfying and not helped by a surely unwarranted diminuendo which, along with a tendency to overemphasise passing detail, robbed the music of its cumulative majesty.

That said, there was more than enough insight in both performances to suggest that Storgårds is shaping into a Sibelian of some stature. Certainly his cycle of the symphonies, to be given at the BBC Philharmonic’s home venue of MediaCity UK in Salford Quays next June (and subsequently released on Chandos), looks set to be distinctive and individual.

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