A trio of twentieth century English works formed the BBC Philharmonic’s first concert back on home turf after their European tour. Two works by Mancunian-trained composers provided a particularly local welcome and Holst’s ever popular Planets suite pulled in a good crowd to witness them. All were carried off with panache and an infectious joie de vivre.

John McCabe’s 1988 Fire at Durilgai is inspired by a passage from Patrick White’s The Tree of Man in which a large fire threatens the eponymous town. Rather than being expressly programmatic, McCabe writes that “It is an expression of my fascination of the inexorable development that fire represents”. The resultant soundscape was vivid and impressively detailed under Storgards’ direction, whilst retaining a constant sense of energy, whether latent or active.

Håkan Hardenberger © Marco Borggreve
Håkan Hardenberger
© Marco Borggreve

Under the glockenspiel’s sparkling night sky, the sweeping, spacious long lines in the low brass were brilliantly juxtaposed against the thrillingly aggressive repeated downbows for the strings against descending woodwind semiquaver runs. It was a strident, urgent dash, but McCabe’s fire was somehow more fascinating than alarming. The ebb and flow of the music, with occasional thunderous timpani interjections, made for compelling listening. Orchestra and audience alike gave a large ovation when Storgards descended the stage steps to hug the composer at the end. This is certainly a piece worth hearing.

Harrison Birtwistle, also in attendance tonight, has had his Endless Parade performed dozens of times by its dedicatee, tonight’s soloist Håkan Hardenberger. This was confirmed by the Swedish trumpeter’s apparently effortless virtuosity in some phenomenal shows of agility. There was impressive control, too in some of the softer passages, where the trumpet was suddenly all soft edges, barely recognisable as the same instrument capable of creating some of the ear-splittingly loud playing or flatulent, pianissimo pedal notes later on. Hardenberger stood centrally between the second violins and violas, seeming to bridge the gap between orchestra and soloist. The same intermediary effect was achieved by Paul Patrick’s magnificent displays of four-mallet vibraphone playing. He achieved a superb control of sound through his pedalling, producing clean but full, well balanced colours alongside explosive outbursts of power. Storgårds too was rooted in the immediacy of the chamber-style scoring, conducting without a baton. It was a frenetic and breathless affair, but again richly deserving of its warm reception.

For once in this city though, few in the audience had come to hear Mancunian music of the late 1980s. Gustav Holst’s Planets suite was tonight given a fiercely impassioned treatment which best suited the more dashing numbers, Mars, Mercury and Uranus. The first of these blazed with terrifying energy in its hammered ostinato. The hall’s enormous Marcussen organ could add little other than to shake the floor a bit. The same directness and immediacy later made Mercury wonderfully light and airy, feeling almost Celtic in some of the repeated string figures. Uranus opened brutally, followed by brilliantly conspiratorial playing from the double reeds. Once the horns took control it became an exhilarating romp, a sort of macabre procession with Storgårds the bandmaster leading with gusto at the front.

The slower movements, though perfectly well played, did not quite create the same intensity of atmosphere. Immediately after Mars, it took a few moments for the serene beauty of Venus to become appreciable, though Storgårds’ unhurried conducting gave leader Yuri Torchinsky’s excellent solos a broad sense of space. The opening passage of Jupiter was taken rather slowly, and it occasionally felt as though the orchestra would have been more comfortable at the more conventional, quicker speed. The ‘big tune’, of course, was suitably stirring, and once the reins were let out a little at the end it all became a bit more spontaneous and engaging.

In Saturn there was great dignity in the slow trombone chorales and mystery in the woodwind playing, along with huge power in the double-stopped timpani strokes. The 32 foot organ stop was put to excellent use, almost inaudible but somehow filling the hall. The final gas giant, Neptune, was similarly mysterious and also convincingly submarine in the fluid playing from adjacent celeste and harps. The ladies of the Manchester Chamber Choir sang well, but their diminuendo which closes the whole work was somewhat misjudged. Rather than fading into nothing as the door to their backstage room is slowly closed, as instructed in the score, they finished quite abruptly as if the door had blown shut. It took little away from the performance, though, which above all was tremendously good fun in its bolder moments.

****1