The performance of four symphonies in one evening is a rare occurrence, and an interesting feat of programming. The BBC Philharmonic explored the development of the symphonic form from the succint, formal classicism of Haydn and Mozart to the broad romanticism of Brahms, via Prokofiev’s witty take on the classical form.

Pablo Heras-Casado © David Martin Page
Pablo Heras-Casado
© David Martin Page

Haydn and Mozart’s first symphonies are three movement works of typical ‘early’ orchestral proportions, with harpsichord and minimal wind presence. Heras-Casado conducted with good musicality, rounding off phrases very satisfyingly, but in both works the levels of dynamic contrast he demanded were perhaps incongruous with the style of the period. Dramatic though it was, greater restraint would not have detracted from the performance and would have highlighted the harpsichord continuo slightly. The playing was good, however, with crisp ensemble in the strings and interaction with the continuo, particularly in the first movement of the Mozart, which conveyed a strong sense of chamber music. Lightness of touch in the horns was also pleasing. More might have been made of the repeated passages in the second movement, however, which threatened to plod. Both symphonies’ the third movements, however, exuded lively cheer and vivacity.

The Philharmonic’s performance of Sergey Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, ‘Classical’ was a great success, capturing the charming irony of the music with great alacrity. The exuberance of the woodwind, notably in the first movement, was backed by wonderful control of articulation. The modern themes of the larghetto were delightful in the pizzicato passage, before descending to a charming pianissimo. Further fine playing came in the finale, particularly from the timpani solo at the opening and the flute flourishes. The fiery intensity Heras-Casado drew from his string section, and the spritely agility they displayed in diving from fortissimo into pianissimo created a fine performance.

Heras-Casado’s reading of Brahms’ first symphony was similarly excellent, and for the most part his players delivered. The opening was assertive and dramatic, whilst the quieter phrases were sublimely rounded, the sound dissolving into a non-entity. The music raged and bounced along, led by the timpani and brass section, hinting at material to be developed later. By contrast the andante flowed with a gentle lyricism and wonderfully full sound in the bass and deeply expressive solos from the principal horn and leader. The opening notes of the fourth movement adagio hung in the air magically, before the mystery of the string pizzicato and thunderous timpani rolls. When it came, the famous horn solo was slightly disappointing; it began bold and resolute, and yet there was a slight wavering effect, perhaps due to a subtle mistune between first and second players, which was followed by a slight thinning of the sound. The phrasing, however, was marvellous, and even the best players must occasionally be forgiven such things. The response from the string section (strongly suggestive of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy melody) was gently noble rather than dripping in richness. As the violins drove the orchestra towards the coda, an impressively full sound grew, culminating in a glorious line from the brass section and further timpani flourishes.

This was an interesting, rather than overwhelmingly successful, trick of programming: slightly strange for an orchestra of the BBC Phil’s habits to tackle Haydn and Mozart, but generally quite effective, and Heras-Casado certainly showed great musicality and originality in his reading of Prokofiev and Brahms.