The BBC Philharmonic’s latest Saturday evening concert at the Bridgewater Hall was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and presented an alluring programme. This comprised a Mozart concerto and two pieces each by two of the 20th century’s greatest composers, both of them looking into the past. 

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC Philharmonic

Le Tombeau de Couperin is an exquisite four-movement suite for small orchestra in which Ravel reflects on French baroque dance forms but also commemorates friends who had been killed in the First World War. Ravel orchestrated four of the six piano originals. Davis brought out dignity of these pieces and but maintained their rhythmic impetus, the orchestra responding with some fine playing. The prominent oboe solos were stunning and the concluding Rigaudon was bright and airy and had a sense of fun.

The distinctive orchestration of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major gives it a rather darker hue than many of the others – there are no timpani or trumpets and oboes are replaced by clarinets. And yet it contains many of Mozart’s most sublime melodies and has long been one of his most frequently preformed and best-loved concertos. Angela Hewitt gave a superb performance. We could see her interacting with the orchestra and conductor frequently, the balance between soloist and orchestra always just right. Hewitt’s playing was crystal clear and felt fresh and personal, as if we were hearing this familiar music for the first time. Her switch from the expressive, heartfelt ending of the second movement to the jollity of the third was magical. She treated us to more Mozart as an encore, the ever-popular Rondo alla Turca.

Angela Hewitt, Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC Philharmonic

The second half began with Stravinsky’s delicious little Suite no. 1, a tiny work of four movements lasting only five minutes in total. They originated as easy piano duets that Stravinsky wrote to play with his children. Davis maintained a sense of fun and left us wanting more.

We then got more Stravinsky, but Stravinsky in a rather different vein. His Apollon musagète (or simply Apollo) was the music for the composer’s first collaboration with George Balanchine. It is for strings only and is often considered the highpoint of his “neoclassical” period. In evoking a scene from Ancient Greece Stravinsky looks back, as Ravel did in Le Tombeau de Couperin, to French baroque forms. But unlike Ravel, Stravinsky eschews orchestral colour, giving the work an elegant, refined atmosphere. Expression was created though varied rhythms and small changes in dynamics. Davis brought out the best in the BBC Philharmonic strings in this poised, serene performance.

To conclude we returned to Ravel and the stage filled up for what the Bachtrack annual statistics tell us was the most performed work of 2022: La Valse. This may not have been the subtlest reading of the work but in the context of this concert it worked perfectly. Other performances may be more misty and mysterious but after an evening of relatively modest orchestras – and especially after the refined strings of Apollo – we wanted to let ourselves go. The huge orchestra for La Valse was louder than anything we had heard so far in the evening and much more exuberant, Davis whipping up the orchestra into a frenzied whirl.