Manchester audiences are lucky; every year the Bridgewater Hall presents a staggering array of music that could rival any concert hall between Earth and Pluto. Within the last seven days we have been fortunate enough to hear music from the baroque to the twentieth century, including a semi-staged version of Henry Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur with the New London Consort and Philip Pickett, followed by the Hallé with Sir Mark Elder performing astonishing renditions of Holst’s Hymn of Jesus and Elgar’s Second Symphony, and the week was capped off on Friday night by the BBC Philharmonic and their concert of Sibelius and Beethoven.

Martin Roscoe, © Eric Richmonds
Martin Roscoe,
© Eric Richmonds

Whilst Thursday night’s Hallé concert played to a well-filled house, the BBC Philharmonic unfortunately cannot report the same attendance success. The Gallery was closed off and the remainder of the hall sparse and unsatisfying. This is a great shame and I have often thought that the orchestra deserves better.

Sibelius is very well represented in Manchester and within the last few years we have had all seven symphonies (some of which have been played several times by various orchestras), two performances of the Violin Concerto, and a whole host of other orchestral works. Beethoven, also, is enjoying special attention this season, with performances of all nine symphonies, the Violin Concerto and several of the piano concertos. Despite this, the mix of the two composers in one concert is unusual, and the performance rather took the structure of a Beethoven sandwich – a meaty piano concerto between two slices of particularly healthy Sibelius-bread.

The concert began with Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3 in C major, composed between 1904 and 1907, and dedicated to Sibelius’ English friend the composer Sir Granville Bantock, who was one of Sibelius’ most enthusiastic advocates and also introduced his music to England. Initially the work had a disappointing première but, as is often the case with great works of art, its genius was eventually recognised, though Sibelius himself said ‘it is the most beloved and least fortunate of my children’.

The BBC Philharmonic got off to an excellent start and gave Sibelius’ three-movement symphony a stirring performance. The opening Allegro moderato is at once forceful then restrained, graceful then bouncily syncopated with frantic strings set against triumphant brass and playful woodwind. The orchestra accomplished all this with vigour before melting into the serenely melancholic Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto. This second movement might be likened to elegant swans floating on a lake, and I hope Sibelius, a composer immersed in nature, would approve of this analogy. The orchestration is so sensitive and the mood so clear that the BBC Philharmonic would benefit in massaging their sentimental side from time to time and attempting a more delicate approach, but sensitivity might never be considered the BBC Philharmonic’s forte. The final movement, Moderato – Allegro (ma non tanto), brought the symphony to a rousing close.

Following this, pianist Martin Roscoe gave a strong performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, composed in 1800 and premièred in 1803 by Beethoven himself. Throughout, the music is intense and save for the slow second movement this is not a concerto that much displays Beethoven’s sensitive side. A shaky start from the strings and woodwind soon gave way to a forceful and dominant introduction before relaxing into Roscoe’s intimately sonata-like performance with beautifully articulated ornaments. The second movement is a great deal more introvert, beginning with a whisper and ending almost on a sob; a gentle tug at the heartstrings inspired by delicately florid piano passages and the occasional sweeping melody from strings and woodwind amounted to a bittersweet moment of bliss, in an unusually moving display from this orchestra. The final movement starts with an almost sarcastic exchange between the piano and solo oboe, the piano having the final word, before the music drifts beautifully into a dialogue between piano, wind and strings, no department competing for attention and all being given their moment to speak. This was in all a very good performance of one Beethoven’s least-heard concertos in Manchester.

The concert was brought to an electric close with an excellent performance of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 7 in C major. This is Sibelius’ shortest symphony at just over twenty minutes, and he was initially cautious about its radical form and musical content, but after its successful première in 1924 his fears were put aside. The symphony is in one continuous movement with a variety of tempo changes splitting the work up. Darkness, light, intensity, profundity, even agony, pain and resolution – the BBC Philharmonic achieved all this in Sibelius’ staggeringly cathartic symphony. The trombones in particular deserve special mention for their sense of line and phrasing, though the whole orchestra excelled throughout as conductor John Storgårds navigated this complex score to an ecstatic climax.