A balanced unpretentious programme of repertoire works, made for an entertaining evening courtesy of a lively Philharmonia Orchestra under Ryan Bancroft. The opening work, The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius, demonstrated one of the orchestras great strengths, its luxurious string sound. This simple work relies of a bed of string sound and quality of playing from the cor anglais to make its mark. It certainly had these qualities in spades, with Henry Clay’s playing of the mournful melody centre stage.

Ryan Bancroft
© Per Morton

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor is a transitional work, with one foot in the Classical world of Mozart and Haydn and the other foot leading us towards to the Romantic era. For this reason, it can be interpretively difficult to pinpoint. Sir Stephen Hough took the Romantic route with an emphasis more on dramatic contrasts rather than clarity and balance. In the long opening movement, he found a gruffness in the louder passages, with heavy accents on chords and passages, which at times seemed overdone. In the quieter moments, both in this movement and even more so in the Largo, he was able to produce some beautiful touches, elevating the mood. In the final Allegro, he was fleet-footed, the infectious energy delivered effectively, with alert accompaniment from Bancroft and the orchestra. A strange encore of The Prophet Bird by Robert Schumann rounded things off quizzically.

The musical highlight of the evening, however, was a first-rate performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4, “The Inextinguishable”, another work that poses challenges to interpreters. Written during World War 1, it reflects that conflict in several ways. Firstly, it pits minor key discordant themes against grand major key music in the manner of good versus evil. Secondly the use of two timpanists literally doing battle in the finale gives a very vivid depiction of war. These disparate forces and the complex key relations in the structure make the journey from turbulent D minor to the triumphant E major a tricky one to navigate, but Bancroft grasped the nettle firmly to produce a very fine account.

The Allegro opening was attacked with edge-of-your-seat gusto and as the music progressed into the slower second subject, the superb Philharmonia woodwinds came into their own, excelling again in the sinister, graceful second movement, Bancroft maintaining tension by emphasising their sharp interjections. The wonderful string section magnified the passionate music of the slow movement, with their power of attack creating a real sense of impending tragedy. The scene was then well set for the visceral battle of the finale, and it didn’t disappoint. Everything seemed to lead to this confrontation and here it was truly electrifying. However, the biggest challenge for the conductor is to convince the listener that the triumphant E major music that ends the work is truly “inextinguishable”. Bancroft slowed the tempo so that the warmth of this major key music could be appreciated and gave the final cadence every chance to convince us that all was well after all. A sense of unease nevertheless remained, as it should with this ambiguity being the point of the symphony.