Since the end of September, the Manchester concert scene has been in full swing; performances from the city’s native and visiting ensembles (orchestral and chamber) are all speeding towards a diverse and exciting season of familiar and forgotten works in chamber recitals, orchestral concerts and opera. One especially well-represented composer this season is Finland’s Jean Sibelius. Born in Hämeenlinna in 1865, Sibelius is responsible for seven extraordinary symphonies, a host of tone poems and many songs, as well as incidental music, choral works and chamber music. As we witnessed earlier this year the BBC Philharmonic, under the expert direction of John Storgårds, are especially adept in Sibelius performances. Tonight they followed their previous success with a performance of Sibelius’ frantic and ravishing tone poem Skogsrået (“The Wood Nymph”). Composed in 1894, the 29-year-old Sibelius already possessed a staggering ability for advanced orchestration, evocation of mood, atmosphere, and, perhaps most importantly, a fertile and independent imagination. The story, in brief, is principally one of seduction; the proud Björn is mesmerised by “moonbeam-weaving dwarves... and the languid appearance of the wood nymph who ensnares him and ruins his life”.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Warm, rich and well-toned brass chords were perfectly balanced against impressive dynamic subtlety in the strings. Of particular note was the tightness of accuracy in exposed passages of brass and woodwind writing which later gave way to a mass of surging, pulsating and unrelenting walls of sound that Storgårds measured masterfully – I was literally on the edge of my seat in anticipation of the climax that Sibelius never fails to provide; it came, and resulted in a very satisfying finale. Given that I have now heard the BBC Philharmonic under Storgårds twice, both concerts including works by Sibelius, I can without hesitation recommend their forthcoming concerts, including all seven Sibelius symphonies, in June 2013.

Following frenzied Sibelius, a more familiar work was enjoyed in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major. One of the many concerts this year featuring British pianist Martin Roscoe – who celebrates his 60th birthday this year, marked by a series of concerto performances and recitals – we were guaranteed an excellent performance. The orchestra, now much reduced in size, were nicely balanced against a bright but strong Steinway D. The music itself, I confess, does not grab me like it used to; following with my trusty Eulenburg pocket score, the solo parts seems to consist mostly of rapid scales and extended passages in octaves, coupled with the thrashing and crashing in a way that only Beethoven can. Then, of course, Beethoven’s genius is made clear as a totally arresting passage of immeasurable beauty and subtlety emerges out of the seemingly ceaseless noisy chaos. Roscoe played excellently – his technique assured and coupled with the dynamic control afforded a pro by a lifetime of music-making. Strings and woodwind blended whilst well placed articulation and intonation completed one of Beethoven’s most famous works. Special mention is always due to the two horn players in this concerto, whose prolonged held notes between the second and third movements were sustained beautifully without intrusive note-splitting or cracking.

To close the evening the BBC Philharmonic gave an electric performance Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 2. Generally considered Denmark’s premier composer, it is hard to see why we have to wait so long between performances of his extraordinary music; superbly crafted with a gift for orchestration, harmonic invention and attention-arresting rhythms, this second symphony makes you glad to know that he wrote four more. Composed between 1901 and 1902 and subtitled “The Four Temperaments”, each movement is headed by a word describing temperament – I: Choleric, II: Phlegmatic, III: Melancholic, IV: Sanguine – and the music is used to portray these. The music in all movements is intense, energetic and forceful, often quickly subsiding to large swirling and soaring textures in the strings before returning to earlier themes of bombastic thrust. Storgårds led the orchestra in an account so energetic it is a wonder he did not collapse of exhaustion – I am not suggesting that Storgårds is unsubtle, no, no – there is simply no beating about the bush and his performances benefit completely from a no-nonsense approach. All orchestral departments were well balanced in excellent tone, rhythmic drive and accuracy as well as passion and the performance amounted to ecstatic applause.