While Wexford has been catering to those opera lovers who devotedly consume the more arcane vocal repertoire, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra proved that there are plenty of obscure orchestral pieces worth hearing. The centrepiece of this concert was of course the Symphony no. 3 in C major by Sibelius, the second part of a so-far excellent cycle that the BBCSO and Oramo have been offering this year, but opening the concert was the rarely heard Symphony no. 2 of Florent Schmitt (not to be confused with the Symphony no. 2 by Franz Schmidt!).

Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Schmitt was born in the same year as the world première of Wagner’s Die Walküre and died in the period in which Stockhausen had started to play around with graphic notation. His Second is a work well worth hearing within the context of the period; while wreathed in the unmistakable smoke of “contemporary” music, it has the tonal ease that prevents it from straying into the demanding territory of pieces from the same period. Oramo made a compelling case for the piece; the quirky, rumbustious opening precisely played and the idiomatic percussion writing (the symphony calls for a range of instruments including the xylophone which opens the third movement) given full flavour. Oramo gave full focus to Schmitt’s game of contrasts, the chaotic and sometimes jazz-inflected faster moments forcefully articulated against the slow, verdant playing of the orchestra in the lush slower points. The first movement, which teems with energy, saw the orchestra at its technical best – the violently fast writing and jagged lines require extreme unity of accuracy in timing from the players for the impact to be felt, as well as a meticulous equilibrium between the orchestral sections, and the BBCSO delivered this in spades. Moments for two harps and individual woodwind players were enthusiastically performed. The strings had a semi-cinematic sweep to them in the slow blossoming of the second movement, the pulse from the deeper strings, played at full throttle, a plush note against the percussion. Despite the best intentions of the conductor, the third was the least interesting of the movements where the originality of the writing seems to have tapered off slightly, but it was gamely performed, the contrasts in dynamism again ably brought forward amid some splendid brass playing. The performance certainly left one with an enthusiasm to explore Schmitt’s work in more detail.

Moving into slightly better-known territory, a piano was brought forward and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet joined Oramo for Franck’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, a piece that has evolution at its heart, growing and adapting in a gentle, almost lifelike manner. Bavouzet’s playing was fragrant, soft and milky in tone. Perhaps a little too impressionist in approach – there was a slight lack of definition and one or two inaccuracies – the piano was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, but for the most part, the fragrance of Bavouzet’s interpretation made for pleasant listening. On the other hand, his approach to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the left hand in D major could have been subtitled “Hold on to your hats, boys!” for the ferocity of its attack. This was one of the most emotional interpretations I have heard recently, the almost violent reverberations on the early moments lingering aggressively on the ear. At points, Bavouzet was off the seat, bracing himself on the piano with his right hand (cheating?) as he lashed the piano with the left, making the cadenza, soft and reflective all the more powerful. From the fine bassoon playing of Amy Harman to the snarl on the cellos and double-basses, the orchestra contribution was measured and in harmony with the spirit of Bavouzet’s playing.

Sibelius is natural territory for Oramo and his intricate knowledge of the composer’s oeuvre is immediately clear from his performance of the Third. There was brisk energy in the opening movement, careful control over volume and very finely controlled tonal colour on the strings; an organic interpretation of the Allegro. Clarity from the woodwind was present throughout with several excellent solos: a touch of mugginess in string definition during the third movement did not hinder the finale’s sense of grand achievement from shining through.