Heroism, life and death formed the somewhat heavyweight themes in this concert of two muscular works performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo to open its 2016/17 season. The depiction of heroism fell into the second half with Richard Strauss, but before that we had the UK première of a substantial work from Australian composer and BBCSO Artist in Association, Brett Dean. Dean started composing in earnest during his 15-year stint as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, and Knocking at the Hellgate is a suite for baritone and orchestra arranged in 2013 from his 2010 opera Bliss, which is based on Peter Carey's novel Bliss. The libretto, by Amanda Holden, covers the story of Harry Joy, an advertising executive who briefly dies of a heart attack and is resuscitated only to find that the life he had been living had literally been in Hell, although redemption does eventually present itself.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

The opening section depicting Harry's heart attack was frantic and chaotic, characterised by calamitous blocks of sound and an arrhythmic collapsing of the music synonymous with cardiac arrest. Oramo was physical and sharp in his direction and the BBCSO was impressive in embracing the hard-hitting music to convey the morality of the storyline. Harry's arrival in Hell was set against the disturbingly nightmarish scenario of a television game-show, with Oramo capturing the banal nature of this scene and the orchestra scything through the unsettled music to convey the pointlessness of material desires to cataclysmic effect. The Canadian baritone Russell Braun played Harry Joy and was appropriately tortured and reflective in the three arias included in this suite. 

The orchestra channelled all the nervous murmurings and vitriolic outbursts before increasing in anxiety towards Harry's violent declaration that he "saw both Heaven and Hell", and the eerie textures pervading the highly expressive hotel room scene were nicely supplemented with noir late-night piano-bar music. The enlightenment of ultimate redemption as Braun portrayed Harry's new life was offset by an unnerving undercurrent of tension as the pain of "this death that carries me away from my true love" led to the music finally melting away. The suite was interspersed with sound projections providing an additional audio narrative, complete with game-show commentary and muffled sounds of televisions in nearby hotel rooms. This was a striking piece with an intelligent score and libretto, and, for me, had slight echoes of Henze's Voices, although still with an individual touch.

"What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Who are these so called heroes and where do they come from? Are their origins in obscurity or in plain sight?" These words from Dostoyevsky could easily apply to Richard Strauss' extravagantly scored tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), a piece which is autobiographical in nature but also resulted in accusations of narcissism. Strauss did try to quash suggestions of placing himself as the hero, suggesting instead that it was more about the general ideal of heroism and overcoming life's obstacles, using his own experiences as an overlay. 

Oramo and the BBCSO launched into The Hero with a fair degree of gusto, with mighty heroic horns and sweeping strings grinding grittily. It was a little ragged in places early on, but things soon settled and an overall wonderful sound emerged from the orchestra. Sibelius once suggested that nobody should pay any attention to what critics say, after all "a statue has never been put up in honour of a critic". In contrast, Strauss decided to let his music be his riposte as he caricatured his critics in The Hero's Adversaries, with the orchestra displaying satisfyingly sarcastic chirruping in the winds and perfunctory brass utterings. A seductive and skittish solo violin in The Hero's Companion was played superbly by Friederike Starkloff, and The Hero's Battlefield was crafted particularly masterfully by Oramo, with wonderful control across the orchestra, especially in the aggressive and violent scenes with active strings and imposing brass and percussion.

There was also some fine ensemble work from the winds in The Hero's Works of Peace, with warm and sumptuous cellos alongside. In the final movement, vicious strings flailed around wildly before a wonderfully bucolic cor anglais solo calmed things down with the BBCSO producing a luscious tone in the slow uplifting theme that followed. The solo violin's duet with the principal horn towards the end was played in a beautifully nostalgic vein reflecting fulfilment in the union of hero and companion. This was a solid performance, not exceptional, but with some wonderful playing and no shortage of commitment and enthusiasm.

As a final gesture, Oramo conducted both audience and orchestra in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" to celebrate BBC Radio 3's 70th birthday. Hear, hear!