The Bergen Philharmonic was in pretty good shape when Edward Gardner took over as Chief Conductor in October 2015, but it continues to go from strength to strength under his leadership. It can trace its roots back to 1765, making it one of the oldest orchestras. Its sumptuous string tone – rich, full fat – is very Central European in flavour, and could frankly grace hallowed orchestras from Dresden and Leipzig. The highlight of their third Proms appearance was a magnificent, muscular reading of Sibelius' Second Symphony which demonstrated the orchestra's considerable strengths.

Edward Gardner conducts the Bergen Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Edward Gardner conducts the Bergen Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There was plenty of theatre in the first half of the programme. Wagner set his opera The Flying Dutchman on the Norwegian coast, so it's appropriate that the Bergen Philharmonic sounded completely at home in its storm-tossed overture. Gardner ripped into the opening with abandon, surging waves and salty spume conjured in the mind's eye. This orchestral synopsis of the opera was full of incident and atmosphere, from oily bassoon to glowering horn smears.

There was incident too in the world première of Rolf Wallin's violin concerto, but I'm not convinced it actually went anywhere. Wittily entitled Whirld, the composer's riddling programme note made reference to alchemy and fractal mathematics, likening the soloist to a meddling dove. After an opening cadenza which invited the orchestra to respond to a series of questions, Alina Ibragimova chirruped and soared, knees flexed, leaning into the score. Wallin certainly gave her plenty to do – industrious arpeggios, plunging scales and left-hand pizzicatos dispatched with aplomb – but it was tough to cut through the heavy orchestral textures. Wallin's grungy palette – grunting woodwinds, ear-tickling harp, an interlude where the percussion grooved – intrigued, but the concerto itself spiralled and circled, the aural equivalent of an Escher stairwell. 

Alina Ibragimova plays <i>Whirld</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alina Ibragimova plays Whirld
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Although Sibelius denied that the Second had any programmatic basis, it builds to become a gritty, defiant work, connected – at least in the popular imagination – to Finland's struggle for independence. Soon after the première, the conductor and Sibelius champion Robert Kajanus wrote that the Andante “strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.” Gardner has a fine sense of the symphony's rugged architecture: there was no micro-managing of individual details here, but chiselling out the bigger picture.

Strings pulsed long sighing phrases in the pastoral opening movement. Gardner allowed generous horn rubato and the ripe low woodwinds – inky bassoons and plum clarinets – chimed contentment.

From featherlight cello pizzicatos in the Andante, a doleful bassoon growled, the horns' granite snarls chilled. By the time the angry Scherzo subsided, the sweeping string melody of the finale hugged you like a warm embrace, brass pealing in triumph.

It was no surprise that Edvard Grieg, artistic director of the orchestra from 1880-82, made a belated appearance for a pair of encores. The Bergen strings offered a heartfelt elegy in Åse's Death, before a lighter atmosphere allowed the Norwegian trolls a merry romp to end a fine evening in high spirits.

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