From the first bars of Sibelius’s Tapiola a certain Nordic steeliness was evident in this performance by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Clarity of diction between the the orchestral sections was paramount, as well as a valedictory tone between the great climaxes, achieved by generally slow tempi and genuine pianissimi, particularly in the strings. This view of the work certainly brought home the fact that this was the last work of any significance that Sibelius allowed to be performed. The world waited thirty years for the elusive 8th Symphony, but perhaps, as this performance demonstrated, it had already been composed.

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega

After this icy perfection, we entered into the rather more earthbound world of Rachmaninov ’s much maligned 4th Piano Concerto in G minor, performed by yet another brilliant young Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. And if any performance could convince you of the quality of this rarely performed work, then this was it. This was a performance that was completely inside the complex mood of the piece, veering between familiar romantic gestures to more troubled outbursts and all in quick succession. The composer obviously worked hard to integrate the piano part with the orchestra in a way that he hadn’t in the earlier concertos and this partnership was brilliantly achieved in this performance with a super-alert BBCSO responding to the the soloist and vice versa.

And Kozhukin’s performance was so natural and musical that he allowed the music to speak on its own terms. The mix of strength and sensitivity in his playing was ideal. In the first movement he was particularly impressive in the great build up to the central climax and the intensity of the climax itself was spine tingling. The wind down from here to the hasty end of the movement was particularly touching and ambiguous. All these qualities were to be seen through the half lights of the slow movements to the brilliant, capricious finale. And for once the work came across as a satisfying whole, equal to and in may ways more sophisticated than the earlier concerti. A very beautiful performance of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits in an arrangement by Sgambati made a very welcome encore.

After the interval a true rarity found it’s way mystifyingly into the programme. John Foulds April - England was composed in 1926 for piano, the same year as the two earlier pieces, but expanded and orchestrated in 1931, when it had a brief success in the concert hall. Like all Fould’s orchestral music, it is very well laid out for the orchestra with a certain adventurousness/wildness at it’s heart. It was certainly an enjoyable performance of an entertaining work, with a touch Vaughan Williams at the beginning, but a central outburst which was not very English at all.  

After this helping of positive energy, it was rather jarring to move into the altogether more complex and disturbing world of Nielsen’s 6th Symphony ‘Semplice’. The opening chimes of the glockenspiel are deceptively ‘semplice’ but what follows rarely finds this innocence again. The first movement is notable for its shifts in mood, but it the dark mood that dominates. In the Humoreske that follows Nielsen, seems to be toying with atonality and other ‘modern’ musical trends of the 1920s. This is a serious game though, steeped in anxieties and doubts. The serious sincerity of the slow is a welcome contrast to all that has gone before, but not reassuring in any way. The fractured and bewildering Tema con variazioni finale offers no solution to any of the problems presented before. The last word given to the bassoons whose fortissimo low B-flat seems to be blowing a raspberry to the whole world and life in general.

Oramo and the BBCSO were not as secure in this repertoire as the were in the Sibelius. One felt that Oramo was not naturally in sympathy with the nihilism of the piece and he tried to emphasise the more positive elements rather than go for broke with the bitterness and desperation. Performances that underplay the ‘semplice’ and push the more disturbing elements, actually find something touching at the heart of the piece, perversely. He was most successful in the two middle movements, but particularly in the bafflingly finale with it’s all over the place variations, he failed to find an inner logic that certainly is evident in many performances of this most fascinating of Nielsen’s symphonies.

****1