Three works written in the turbulent years after the end of World War 2 were featured in this dynamic concert with the BBCSO under the baton of Sakari Oramo. In the dangerous Soviet world still blighted by Stalin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote symphonies which put them in conflict with the authorities. On the other hand, Copland, writing in the US at a golden time which saw his country becoming the dominant economic and military world power, was able to access an easy mix of serenity and joy in his Clarinet Concerto around same time.

Martin Fröst, Sakari Oramo and the BBCSP
© BBC | Mark Allan

This performance of Copland's concerto saw Martin Fröst effortlessly persuading us that this is one of the most successful of all woodwind concertos. The slow opening has the open-air atmosphere of the composer’s Appalachian Spring, leading, via a fiendishly difficult cadenza, to a jazzy fast concluding section. Fröst, who is the one of the most vibrant performers on the classical scene at the moment, was able to encompass all the moods and jives of the piece, dancing his way through much of it and producing a phenomenal variety of tone, dynamics and rhymical quick-wittedness. This was a thoroughly convincing display of showmanship and musicality that was a joy to behold. A welcome encore was an arrangement by Fröst's brother, Göran, of klezmer music, produced some partially improvised fireworks and charm from Fröst which clearly dazzled everyone in the hall.

The dark world of Stalin’s Russia saw a much more troubled response from Shostakovich in his Symphony no. 9 in E flat major. The year before the work was composed, Shostakovich announced he was intending to write a grand work with a choral finale fittingly declaiming Russia’s victory in the war. Instead, he composed the most lightweight and apparently flippant of all his symphonies. Lacking any real overarching atmosphere only its brisk opening Allegro is fully satisfying, with the remaining movements truncated and inconclusive. The overall effect is superficially ‘jolly’ but the lasting impression is disconcerting and troubling.

Oramo’s approach was to present the score as straight as possible, without frills or attempts to pull the material together in any way. The BBCSO responded with excellent playing from the exposed woodwind section and controlled power in the brass. However, whatever way conductors approach it, the symphony still seems stunted both emotionally and structurally. It remains the least performed of all the composer’s mature symphonies, perhaps for good reason.

Prokofiev’s Sixth is often described as the composer’s greatest symphonic achievement. It is certainly his most personal symphonic utterance and its ultimately bleak outlook did not go down well with the Soviet authorities and however much Prokofiev insisted that he intend the work to describe the suffering of the Russian people during the war, you cannot get away from feeling that the symphony reflects the composer's suffering and angst rather than anything more universal. As such, it is a very powerful achievement.

The Sixth has struggled to find an interpretative direction and performances can differ quite markedly, particularly in the tempi of the opening movement. Oramo chose a swift pace which emphasised the drama as opposed to its mournful aspects. The central climax was powerfully presented, with the thick and rasping orchestration expertly balanced throughout. Likewise, in the Largo, with its grand opening wall of sound, was both astringent and richly resonant, the whole movement wonderfully mobile, unfolding with naturalness and nobility. The tricky Vivace finale was very effective. The facile jollity of the opening theme was slyly insinuating and this slipped into the even more unctuous second section with ease. However, the presence of the violent timpani theme, initially playful, was gradually transformed into something evil over the span of the movement, reaching, after a brief reprise of the tragic oboe theme from the first movement, a truly tragic final cadence. A wonderfully clear and direct performance of a symphony that deserves to be heard more often.