Is traditional English pub grub popular in Helsinki? Perhaps Sakari Oramo got a taste for it during his Birmingham years for there was something “stout and steaky” – to borrow the composer’s description of his Cockaigne Overture – about last night’s hearty performance of Elgar’s Third Symphony with the BBCSO at the Proms. As the CBSO’s music director, the Finnish conductor proved himself a very fine Elgarian and much of that experience was evident here, even if the symphony itself isn’t entirely Elgar but more Anthony Payne, who “elaborated” the 130 pages of sketches to complete the work.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

“Don’t let anyone tinker with it,” the dying Elgar told his friend, the violinist Billy Reed, when he realised he wouldn’t live to complete his Third, commissioned by the BBC in 1932. However, composer Anthony Payne did venture to tinker until Elgar’s family tried to put a stop to his work. They eventually realised that the sketches would come out of copyright in 2005, when any Tom, Dick or Tony could work on it, so Payne was ultimately commissioned to complete the symphony.

As completions go, Elgar 3 is pretty convincing, and there were times in the BBCSO’s performance where one was reminded of other Elgarian works. The second movement, with its elfin strings and tambourine flecks, sounded like the “something we hear down by the river” episode from the First Symphony, while the heraldic fanfares and invigorating string theme of the finale has more than a touch of Pomp and Circumstance to it. Oramo is an affable Elgarian and the Allegro molto maestoso first movement opened with purpose, as if striding across the Malvern hills amid horn bluster and whistling piccolo. The crepuscular brass of the Adagio third movement felt like a twilight stroll through the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral, although inspiration occasionally sags here, Elgar – or Payne – hitting the doldrums. The finale, too, lacks a tune to “knock ‘em flat”, as Elgar might have put it, but Payne’s solution to the symphony’s ending does convince, with a sense of heading into the unknown, the side-drum’s rattle possibly a premonition of wartime conflict to come.

Last night’s performance was bold and confident, with characterful woodwinds and crisp string playing from the BBCSO. Sadly, the same cannot be said for its autopilot contributions to Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor before the interval. After Javier Perianes’ teasing of the Bach-like prelude, the orchestral attack was soggy and lacklustre – with a degree of boredom thrown in – especially when compared with the joie de vivre exhibited by Les Siècles just last week in Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Concerto. Perianes deserved better. His playing flickered and flashed in the jaunty Allegro scherzando, although the finale’s tarantella was more courteous than exuberant. The real heat came in his smouldering encore, the Ritual Fire Dance from El amor brujo, but only after Perianes had humbly sought permission from the leader to play it.

Spain was briefly evoked in the “Festivo” movement of Sibelius’ Scènes historiques which had opened the concert, but it will take more than a few castanet clatters to convince me that we’re anywhere but Finland, so rooted is Sibelius’ music in his homeland. Oramo felt as at home here, of course, as in the Elgar, a whole-hearted presence, beaming at his charges in a tidy, no-nonsense rendition.