Unless you play one, it’s not every day that you get to see a theremin in action. It looks like black magic, an instrument you play without even touching it, waving your hands to produce mystical, swooping glissandos. It is literally conjuring sound from thin air. Fortunately, after Kalevi Aho’s concerto Eight Seasons, Carolina Eyck, the world’s leading theremin player, gave the Proms audience a debrief before her encore to explain how it was all done. I hope she doesn’t get expelled from the Theremin Magic Circle for revealing its secrets. 

Carolina Eyck and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Between its two antennae are electromagnetic fields. The left hand controls the volume – the closer to the antenna, the softer the sound – and the right hand controls pitch, a flutter of the fingers producing a vibrato. Eyck’s expressive hands wove their patterns to mesmerise in Aho’s concerto, written for her in 2011, commissioned by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra. The premiere was conducted by John Storgårds, also at the helm here, this time with the BBC Philharmonic. 

The concerto is rooted in the north, the seasons being eight in number because the Sámi people divide their year into eight sections. Aho’s music creates a spare, bleak atmosphere, not unlike that of his teacher, Einojuhani Rautavaara. Indeed, there were times when the theremin’s plunging response to the oboe’s keening bird calls reminded me of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus. Eyck would seem to pluck the air to create a double bass pizzicato thud, or glide her hands as if playing a harp glissando. There were moments where she sang too, melismas in duet with her theremin. 

At 33 minutes, there were occasional longueurs – four seasons rather than eight would have been sufficient. Likewise, Kaija Saariaho’s Vista, which was also receiving its Proms premiere. Written for large orchestral forces, but without her signature palette of piano, celesta and harp, it was inspired by the views the composer experienced driving from Los Angeles to San Diego. It is in two chunky movements, Horizons and Targets, sounding bold and energetic in its noisier moments, but tension sagged in the middle. 

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It’s ironic that the longest work on the programme was the one that flew by the fastest. But then, Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15 is a masterpiece, easily the best symphony written during my lifetime. The last time Storgårds conducted at the Proms was a volcanic Shostakovich Eleventh – also with the BBC Phil – and they were on dynamic form here too, rhythmically tight and punchy. They found their groove from the very start, playful and lighthearted, Shostakovich’s quotation from William Tell eliciting chuckles. The quiet moments in the second movement were the most powerful, especially Peter Dixon’s anguished cello solo and the brooding Wagnerian brass, Richard Brown’s trombone glowering like the dragon Fafner in his cave. John Bradbury’s mocking clarinet leant the third movement Allegretto a sinister dance quality. 

In the final movement, after the enigmatic quotations from Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde, Storgårds shaped the string passage lovingly, almost Brittenesque in the violins’ high, elegiac phrases. But Shostakovich’s clock is ticking and the BBC Phil’s sinister percussion toyshop whirred and clicked to bring the symphony to a desolate close, time literally running out for a composer already in frail health.