Imaginative and unpredictable programme planning is a reviewer’s delight. So three cheers for an evening in which the theme of the sea was explored not only in the sensuous opulence of Korngold and Rimsky-Korsakov but also in the astringency of Anders Hillborg.

James Gaffigan © Daniela Kienzler
James Gaffigan
© Daniela Kienzler

Those were the days when Errol Flynn was the swashbuckling hero in The Sea Hawk, with a cast of 3000 including Flora Robson as Good Queen Bess and other big names of the period such as Claude Rains. How much less striking the golden age of Hollywood would have been without the sumptuous film music written for the silver screen by the likes of Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa and Max Steiner, and how unfortunate that the most gifted of this select group, Erich Korngold, found his own career as a classical composer blighted by his forays into popular territory. The Proms have an admirable history of bridging this academic divide, so the choice of the Korngold overture made a spirited start to this concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under James Gaffigan.

Homer’s Odyssey is one of the cornerstones of world literature and over the ages its stories have coloured our language as well as exciting the imagination of musicians and other artists. Hillborg’s largest work to date, Sirens, given in the presence of the composer, was here receiving its UK première. No matter that the influences of Debussy and Holst are palpable in the choral writing, this is atmospheric music of an extraordinary power and intensity. Over more than 30 minutes it sustains a mesmerising quality that reminded me of Górecki’s Third Symphony. It relies on lots of held chords and choral clusters for many of its effects, but the constant shifts in texture allay any sense of stasis. These textures make use of the widest possible range of string sound, from ethereal high-lying violins to deep growls from the lower strings, other-worldly manifestations in the form of a glass harmonica and suspenseful elements introduced by the mixed chorus, including at one stage a percussive obbligato. Riding the waves which ripple through the work are two soprano soloists, of whom considerable vocal dexterity is demanded. The success of this performance, sensitively shaped by Gaffigan, owed much to the lustre and expressiveness of Hannah Holgersson and Ida Falk Winland, both ideally matched, as well as the strength and flexibility of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Not the least of the favourable elements in this performance were the helpful acoustics in the Royal Albert Hall that allowed individual sounds to float and resonate freely.

Which brings me to the one niggle that I have: the text that Hillborg uses, drawn from Homer himself and with additions by the composer. Towards the end of the work we come across the line “We’d love to turn you on”. In a text which is informed by much poetic beauty this sticks out like a sore thumb. Far more problematic is the fact that such a potentially telling text is frequently inaudible, either because the opening section is whispered by the chorus or because of the extreme legato of the vocal lines involving constant gliding between consonants and vowels. For a piece in which the important narrative is obscured this is a shortcoming.

Gaffigan’s treatment of Scheherezade was something of a surprise. Given the inspiration that the Islamic world offered so many Russian composers – just one instance of the western fascination for Orientalism in the late 19th century – I was expecting more seductive allure than was actually on display. True, the perfume can more sensibly be dabbed rather than splashed on, but unlike Salome in Strauss’ opera, this Scheherezade kept all her veils on and her storytelling rarely hinted at anything passionate beneath the surface. The soft-grained start with the Sultan’s theme on the brass noble and restrained, rather than angry and awe-inspiring, had already set the tone for much of what followed, the waters of this particular sea remaining serene and unruffled and the stately galleon untroubled by anything inclement or untoward. Indeed, with an emphasis over wide stretches of the performance on the melodic line, an impressionistic treatment of orchestral colour and a chamber-like delicacy to the playing this might almost have passed for a neglected work by Bizet.

Gaffigan partially redeemed himself in the finale. Here he stepped up the tempo, added a touch of the panache that was earlier missing and allowed the brass their head, but the score rarely came alive with the pulsating colours and glowing textures typical of the finest readings. There was, however, much to delight the ear in the contributions of the orchestra, especially the sweet-toned solo violin (Sarah Christian) and the distinctive sounds of all four wind principals as well as the admirably secure brass.