Here was a challenging first half, even for an orchestra as used to mastering complex scores quickly as the BBC Symphony. Both the Bax and Dean works have intricate textures tricky to balance, are full of important detail that can go for nothing and relatively few big signposts around which to structure the performance. Both were given masterly accounts. Finnish Chief conductor Sakari Oramo might be expected to revel in a saga-based tone poem from 1916 by that well known Sibelius admirer Arnold Bax. The Garden of Fand is a tale of Cuchulain, who was a sort of ocean-going Celtic Kullervo. But Bax is hardly a staple of the concert repertoire in Britain even now, and on this evidence the Bax enthusiasts who yearly complain of his absence from the Proms schedules really do have a point. What an opening this is, much more pointilliste than impressionist, an iridescent seascape of glinting harps and woodwinds over a fathomless bass undertow, as evocative in its way as Bridge’s The Sea, Britten’s Sea Interludes or Bax’s own Tintagel. Oramo conjured the shifting colours, now dark, now opalescent, finally blinding in the work’s main climax, like a Prospero of the podium.

Sakari Oramo © Dan Hansson
Sakari Oramo
© Dan Hansson
In his own programme note, Brett Dean  speaks of the paucity (until the 20th century) and relative poverty of viola concertante works. But Dean’s own Viola Concerto is certainly not restricted to the melancholy alternating with defiant gruffness that he notes in the genre. The first movement, is very short (two and a half minutes in his own recording) and purely expository. But despite being apologetically called “Fragment”, it is satisfying in its peacefulness, introducing some of the main themes and ending with a high and serene solo. The succeeding movement is mostly swift and virtuosic, with a searching slower interlude. The finale, headed “veiled and mysterious”, begins with a long lamenting solo, leads to a big tutti, and closes with a searching fade-out, solo viola duetting poignantly with the cor anglais. Not only is this concerto evidently an important contribution to a still small genre, but it is also a terrific orchestral showpiece, benefitting no doubt from the fact that Dean, a former violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, knows the orchestra from the inside (like Elgar). Perhaps that’s why he joined the orchestra’s viola section after the interval.

Elgar is a composer whom Oramo has often played in the UK, and very idiomatically at that. Gone are the days, thank goodness, when anyone seriously suggested you needed to be British - or better, an Englishman from the West Midlands - to perform Elgar well: Solti, Haitink and Barenboim scotched that idea long before Sakari Oramo came along. The First Symphony, which Elgar said had no programme but embodied “a massive hope in the future”, was given a superb performance. Tempi were broadly traditional (a nineteen minute first movement and twelve minute finale) rather than the very fast timings of the composer’s recording. Nonetheless after the nobilmente introductory motto the allegro of the first movement was passionate and striving, just like Elgar’s recording, with abundant detail.

The scherzo’s rushing semiquavers, along with the march-like theme and the lyrical interlude, were all expertly realised before yielding to the great adagio. Here in the heart of the work Oramo revealed the true tenderness in the succession of moving episodes, right through to the elegiac coda with its haunting benediction for muted trombones. “The rest is silence” wrote Elgar (quoting Hamlet) on the manuscript here, and the hall briefly held a rare sense of communion.

The finale was no less distinguished, especially by the transformation of its main theme in the cantabile canon passage, brazenly capped by the exultant horns. If the return of the motto at the very end now sounds more equivocal than triumphant – the cross-accents violently interjected – perhaps it’s because in the century since the work’s December 1908 premiere we no longer share that “massive hope in the future”.  Not that such thoughts prevented a rousing reception for this splendid concert.