John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve
The BBC Philharmonic rounded off their Nielsen symphony cycle with a bold account of the Espansiva alongside further excellent lieder from Mahler. Chief Guest Conductor John Storgårds curated this intensive exploration of Nielsen symphonies. His most brilliant creative turn this year was to pair Mahler’s Wunderhorn lieder with the Nielsen symphonies. The close juxtaposition of the two composers has cast new light on the symphonies, somehow making them feel simpler, while highlighting the great imagination behind the lieder. It is a pity that they did not get recorded along with the symphonies. Tonight’s songs came from Hanno Müller-Brachmann, who imbued them with a powerful sense of life, in all its optimism, grim reality, tragedy and comedy.

The first song, Rheinlegendchen, flowed freely along with more sense of waltz than ländler, with pleasing elegance from the reduced string section of forty players. The innocent humour turned rather dark for Das irdische Leben (a black counterpart to the Heavenly Life of the fourth symphony). This was also in evidence behind the bold, martial sweep of Revelge, with Müller-Brachmann’s rich tone and sense of character bringing a good deal of poignancy to the cries of “Trallali, trallaley, trallalera!” against a backdrop of skeletal col legno in the strings. In Lob des hohen Verstandes came the greatest beauty and humour of tonight’s Mahler selection. The graceful song of the Nightingale was attended to with fine control and colourful timbre, and was in stark contrast to the Donkey’s cries of “Hee-Haw!” which were gleefully carried off with huge relish.

Carl Nielsen’s Sinfonia Semplice, widely regarded as one of the more aurally difficult of the six, toys with similar childlike innocence at its outer edges. Storgårds’s brisk, delicate glockenspiel opening betrayed little of the darkness he would later find in the inner movements. There was light, too, though with a blazing climax in the first movement. The woodwind soloists, some of the most important contributors to successful Nielsen, tackled their virtuosic passages with apparent ease alongside admirable musicality. Storgårds oversaw close interaction between sections with a light touch, allowing a good sense of chamber music to shine through. Here, too, was another link with Mahler: for all the vastness of the orchestra on stage, it is often the small inter-sectional dialogues which give the most pleasing results.

Needless to say, the bassoon has the last laugh in this most capricious of symphonies. The finale zipped along with frenzied energy, seemingly jocular and playful but with an inescapable darkness lurking beneath the music, most evidently in the slightly twisted central waltz and brass interjections. The coda, though, could not fail to leave a smile on the face.

The Espansiva symphony, a more straightforward beast by most accounts, was made all the more expansive for the addition of reinforcements in the horn and trumpet sections, ranged along the back of the orchestra. One had to feel for the two soloists, Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Gillian Keith, wedged between the trumpets, horns and timpani. Their second movement contributions, albeit brief, never sought to be more than a component part of the orchestra, shining beautifully on the top of the texture. Neither was Storgårds keen to overdo the slow movement, with his gently drifting pulse creating a steady sense of flow above solid drone bass.

Elsewhere the power Storgårds drew from the orchestra was most impressive. The blinding opening sequence of tutti As set the tone for a crisp performance which stayed right at the point of the conductor’s beat, even while roaring along to the first movement’s exultant climax. The glowing finale, described by Daniel Grimley in his excellent accompanying notes as a Danish ‘ode to joy’, saw some gloriously rich, legato playing from all sections, notably the horns. The final pages accelerated to a riotous close, the horns’ gutsy trills followed by conclusive cannon-shots from timpanist Paul Turner, whose contributions to the cycle cannot be overestimated.

This was a fitting close to the Philharmonic’s season and the Nielsen cycle, which, one feels, has served the great Danish composer exceptionally well. John Storgårds, who also curated a similar project of Sibelius symphonies this time last year, should be very proud of these short immersive bursts of creative energy. He has brought great warmth and enthusiasm to both cycles, and is a great credit to the musical life of the city, and one hopes that he will be back for another similar project in future.