The second instalment in the BBC Philharmonic’s Sibelius cycle saw the mighty Second Symphony paired with the darker Fourth at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. Both received superb performances.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

The Fourth is perhaps the hardest to enjoy of Sibelius’ seven symphonies. It lacks the obvious heroism of the First, Second, Fifth and Seventh and ends bleakly. John Storgårds made a very strong case for this complex work in a cogent and measured reading. His sense of spacing was particularly impressive, often stretching lines into long arcs of sound without threat of disruption to the individual components of the music.

The other key to the success of this performance was the rich palate of colours from the lower strings. Their opening bars were thick and sinewy as a prelude to principal cello Peter Dixon’s wonderfully mournful solo. Guest principal double bass Mikko Moilanen is on loan to the Philharmonic from Storgårds’ other orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic, for the Sibelius cycle, and he led the section very well all evening, balancing rhythmic precision with full, rich sound.

The brass section played with admirable control in the soft moments of the first movement. The horns’ optimistic rising figure was full of anticipatory warmth, though the promised resolution is denied by a prolonged passage of unsettled playing. The second appearance of the horn figure was notably softer, cleverly reflecting the preceding agitation. The slow third movement carried tremendous weight to corroborate Daniel Grimley’s labelling of it as the “emotional heart of the work”. An outstanding flute solo hung in the air beautifully with well-tapered phrase ends, and there was further good brass playing in the ensuing horn chorale. The strings’ long lines here flowed with intense feeling, as they later would in the slow movement of the Second Symphony. It was deeply affecting, especially given the bleakness of the long, sustained unison viola and violin C sharps which close the movement.

The fourth movement offers a light, festive close for the symphony before a dark finish. The strings again played very well, with the successive solos for solo cello and violin working particularly well. These are identical in melody and pitch, but the contrast set up by the two players sitting opposite each other, playing at the upper and lower ends of their range respectively, was a very good effect. Storgårds attended to all the fine details closely without losing sight of the broader direction of the music, and so the demise of the bounding good-spirits was profoundly moving. The audience held a wonderfully prolonged silence after the final notes, which was as telling as the enthusiastic applause as to the quality of the performance.

Sibelius’ Second Symphony must be one of the best examples of a symphonic triumph over adversity, and therefore made for a perfect foil to the Fourth. Many of the qualities of the concert’s first half were continued, with a good sense of long structure giving strong feeling to the work’s heroic ending.

The gently pulsing opening of the work, with its rising three-note string figure, was taken fairly swiftly to help establish a sense of momentum, which was maintained through much of the movement. In the Andante too, the strings set the tone with their slow, wandering pizzicato triplets, perfectly synchronised and with indiscernible passing of the line between cellos and basses. The plaintive bassoon melody that follows was suitably desolate, and the rest of the movement unfolded heavily and without hurry. The bold entry of tutti brass was spread very widely, reverberations being allowed to dissipate fully before the next entry.

Storgårds pushed ahead near the end of the second movement to set the tone for the third, where the strings’ fierce bite early on was contrasted with anguished legato in the softer passages. The ascent to the fourth movement was not overly dramatic; there was some sense of relief at the reappearance of D major, but also a feeling that there was much more to be said. The central parts of the movement provided further anguish, before the second, much slower crescendo to the end. This takes several minutes, and so to start with exquisitely pianissimo woodwind solos as Storgårds did was a useful move. It was certainly a hard-won victory, with heroic brass and timpani in the final pages giving a very satisfactory ending, despite the occasional slip of ensemble. An unusual touch was the momentary silent pause, usually filled with a vigorous timpani roll, before the very last note. This seemed to provide a cap on the turmoil of the symphony, and the audience responded with enthusiastic cheers.

****1