The Bergen Philharmonic opted to begin its UK tour in a school deep in the Essex countryside in a diverse programme of Grieg, Elgar and Bartók. The rich acoustics of Saffron Hall, however, offered an intimate insight into the warm colours of the orchestra's string section from the first pages of Peer Gynt, and aside from a slightly loose account of the Elgar Cello Concerto, the orchestra played with fizzing energy and glorious colour.

Leonard Elschenbroich © Felix Broede
Leonard Elschenbroich
© Felix Broede

The first half of the programme might easily have been picked from a CD of All Your Classical Favourite Hits, but to hear the Grieg done so well was a rare privilege. Perhaps the Norwegian orchestra takes a certain national pride in their country's greatest classical son, but to play such well-trodden works as Morning and In the Hall of the Mountain King with such earnest splendour shows the quality and ethos of the orchestra in a very good light. The ensemble was spotless in passing pizzicato lines around the string section in Anitra's Dance, bouncing back and forth between opposing violins with seamless tone quality, before a brilliantly conspiratorial Mountain King in which the snide interjections from muted horn punctuated a riotous crescendo.

The Concerto for Orchestra, now acknowledged as one of Bartók's greatest works, was written in 1943 by the ailing composer as he lay drenched from fever in his New York hospital bed, slowly succumbing to acute myeloid leukaemia. It is a thrilling tour de force and a popular choice for touring orchestras, offering virtuosic solo opportunities for all corners of the stage while only requiring a band of fairly standard romantic proportions. The ensemble was again superb from the outset in the cello and double bass murmurs beneath delicate fingers of woodwind sound. Remarkably for such a complex work, Edward Gardner conducted without a score, masterfully overseeing the elaborate melodic lines and unusual instrumental combinations (often in pairs). He also allowed the wonderful colours and expressiveness of his brass and woodwind players to shine, resulting in some very pleasing moments for the brass section especially.

The two scherzos, flanking the central slow movement, found great humour in their wind solos, bassoons and trombones unsurprisingly the ringleaders. In the fourth movement we hear snatches of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (or is it the Merry Widow?) in a comically brash, almost Coplandesque style. The central Elegia movement was painted in far broader strokes, neatly forming an emotional epicentre of the whole work. The finale, by comparison, was a dashing, breathless charge full of trumpet heroics and a thrilling mini-fugue flashing between the string sections.

It was a pity that Elgar's Cello Concerto did not quite reach the same triumphs. Leonard Elschenbroich was an enticing prospect as soloist, but his and the orchestra's reading was for the most part very comfortable and efficient (with the exception a near-calamity for Elschenbroich in the Scherzo) rather than offering any particularly strong take on the music. There was plenty to be admired, especially in the orchestra's relatively bold handling of the music, which suggested more a Norwegian folk tale than a crisis of English reserve, but the performance never quite reached the emotional heart of the music.

This was nonetheless an auspicious start to this wonderful orchestra's tour and was very warmly received. One might have groaned if forewarned of the prospect of Nimrod as an encore – do touring orchestras think this is what English audience want to hear? – but one needn't have worried. If the first half Elgar did not quite touch the heart, Gardner's Nimrod lingered momentarily on the very first note before blossoming into what was probably the most moving account of the piece I have heard.