As the inaugural event to mark the beginning of a partnership between the BBC Philharmonic and University of Lancaster, this concert provided an exciting taste of what such a relationship could achieve. The University’s Great Hall proved to be an uncommonly intimate venue for hearing a Romantic Russian symphony. The ultra-dry acoustic of the hall threw glaringly bright light onto every note of the evening, leaving no room for untidy ensemble, and the loudest moments of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique gave the impression of having a symphony orchestra in one’s living room. Elsewhere, though, there was a plenty of scope for appreciating the thick, warm sound of the violas and cellos in the impassioned music of the outer movements. It was Tchaikovsky in high-definition, but a sense of meticulous clarity underpinned almost all of the evening’s music and there was never any shortage of rich romanticism.

Julian Bliss © Ben Wright
Julian Bliss
© Ben Wright

The symphony opened in grim darkness and erupted into a furious rage, where the crystalline textures cast sharp relief onto intricate string and wind figures. Timpani and low brass roared so vociferously that the strings’ major key theme late in the movement could only offer a watery smile by way of redemption. The high tension was maintained in the waltz, where Gourlay maintained a constant sense of forward movement and rhythmic propulsion below the strings’ elegant legato.

Despite a few rare moments of laxity in ensemble, the Scherzo marched along with stirringly cheery abandon, though that sense of anxiety and menace never seemed far from the surface, lurking in the brash tramp of the march. For once there was no applause between third and fourth movements (for right or wrong), and after the bleakness of the first and lurking darkness of the inner movements, the tragedy of the finale seemed entirely inevitable. There was great beauty to be admired in the rich, dark hues of the string section, but ultimately the overriding atmosphere of this Pathetique was one of grimly inescapable despair.

The other context to the evening was in marking the impending bicentenary of writer and thinker John Ruskin, who lived out his latter years not far up the road in Coniston. Thus Edward Cowie's Ruskin's Dreams – Coniston gave the evening a pleasing local resonance. The 25-minute concerto sees the clarinet soloist working in a concertante style, often working as a particularly prominent part of the orchestra rather than an antagonist. Julian Bliss, in this regard, proved a sharp accompanist, able to weave his sound in and out of the orchestra's, whilst also being a thrilling showman in the more acrobatic solo passages. An extended tuned percussion section provided most of the wackier sound effects in the textbook on their array of bells, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone, including a passage for bowed cymbal.

Before the concerto, the evening had begun with a crisp account of Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas overture. With Andrew Gourlay’s spritely baton flicks and a reduced violin section of 20 musicians, the sound was neat and almost classical in outlook. The brass chorales were entirely free of rough edges, though, and attractively balanced. After something of a pre-concert scrum for ticket collection, which Lancaster Arts will want to address in future visits, this was an auspicious start to what will hopefully be a long and prosperous relationship between university and orchestra.​

****1