Sibelius is an extraordinarily well represented composer in Manchester and, ever since Sir John Barbirolli’s conductorship of the Hallé, all his symphonies have been presented here many times by both native and visiting orchestras – even within the last decade a Sibelius symphony cycle has been undertaken by the Hallé, and tonight marks the third and final concert of the BBC Philharmonic’s 2013 Sibelius cycle. To conclude this BBC Philharmonic trilogy of concerts and live broadcasts featuring the seven symphonies, the Third, Sixth and Seventh were given together. Individually these symphonies last for little more than around half an hour, and the variety and scope of imagination found in each makes for an excellent programme of remarkably contrasting soundworlds. Running chronologically, the concert began with the Third Symphony of 1907, and by this time Sibelius had already made a significant impact on British audiences through the enthusiastic encouragement and support of various British musical authorities, consequently, the work is dedicated to his first British champion and advocate, the conductor, composer and academic Granville Bantock (1868–1946).

BBC Philharmonic at MediaCityUK Salford Quays © BBC / Sussie Ahlburg
BBC Philharmonic at MediaCityUK Salford Quays
© BBC / Sussie Ahlburg

Over the last few seasons, between the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé, the Third Symphony has made at least four appearances in Manchester. Its wonderful melodies, tense harmonic shifts and drawn-out climaxes, coupled with its striking orchestration, easily make it one of Sibelius’ most engaging compositions. Conductor John Storgårds has shown himself a master architect of Sibelius, and from the precision of rhythm and intonation of the opening cello and bass melody that eventually fills out the whole orchestra, the foundation was laid for an excellent performance. Marked Allegro moderato, the first movement was perhaps a little on the hasty side, but this allowed for a heightened sense of intensity in the great brass climaxes. Strings coped excellently with tricky semiquaver passages that require an accomplished dexterity to achieve the full effect of their heavily articulated melodies, whilst brass brooded and woodwind interjected like almost unseen woodland birds – though Sibelius’ symphonies feature no programme, and given his admiration for nature, it is not too wild to imagine a stream running through a wood. The slow movement’s thinly scored, eerie dance of woodwind and divided strings chilled the atmosphere before the third and final movement heated up the room with an excellent sense of moving toward a wide open space of heat and light. Of particular note, the French horns have been a little overbearing in the four previous symphonies, but tonight seemed better balanced.

The less frequently played Sixth Symphony received a stirring rendition, and, being the work with which I was least familiar, was an enchanting experience. The opening delicate string writing, not unlike some elaborate 16th-century choral work and which Sibelius likened to the sweetness of the year’s first glistening snowfall, does conjure up an unusually familiar atmosphere of something Christmassy or, at the very least, wintry – a chilly but comforting feeling of candles flickering behind stained glass windows. The strings were virtually flawless in tuning and poise as oboes and flutes further smoothed out the orchestral line before timpani and horns intensified the mood. Storgårds led the orchestra in a steady second movement which, though not as bleak as the corresponding movement in the Third Symphony, still sustains a sense of something darker. The brief Poco Vivace again calls woodwind expertise to the fore and the BBC Philharmonic projected excellently so that every note, occasionally underpinned by Clifford Lantaff’s harp and subdued horns, was heard. The symphony gently succumbs to the same calmness with which it opens and, in an expertly guided diminuendo by Storgårds, we were left ready for Sibelius’ shortest, final and most intense symphony.

Coming in at just over 20 minutes, Sibelius’ one-movement Seventh Symphony is one long, electrically charged orchestral climax – maybe not consistently in volume or rhythm, but certainly in emotional intensity. This Seventh Symphony is the most suitable for the BBC Philharmonic – an orchestra so accustomed to difficult 20th-century and contemporary music can really shine as they dig their heels into Sibelius’ complex score. Orchestral balance here was much better than in some previous performances, and, though Sibelius moves quickly between sections of thin to dense scoring, the orchestra adapted well. It is a taxing score for all departments, the brass especially, and in particular the trombones excelled in lengthy melodies that require a strong technique and control. For navigating this score and producing a coherent musical experience that incorporated all of Sibelius’ numerous tempo changes and tricky phrasings, and the remarkably dense finale of brass and string intensity – all without getting lost in a hopeless muddle – the BBC Philharmonic and Storgårds gave as stirring an interpretation as I believe it is possible to hear.

In all this has been an extremely compelling and successful series of performances, and I can only hope that their affinity for this music will spill over into performances of unfamiliar Sibelius scores such as Kullervo, or perhaps a cycle of Nielsen’s six symphonies.

****1