Just occasionally a regular concert-goer experiences a performance that is truly special.  When he is not anticipating this, it can be an overwhelming experience. This BBC Philharmonic concert proved to be such an experience. Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds has built a reputation as a major interpreter of the music of Sibelius and other Nordic composers. It was therefore not surprising that his concert on Saturday evening began with Grieg. The remainder of the programme consisted of English music. I was not aware of Storgårds being a specialist in this area but this proved to be one of the finest performances of English music that I have ever heard, culminating in an overwhelming account of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Grieg is a well-loved composer but apart from the ever popular Piano Concerto in A minor and Peer Gynt music his music rarely features in orchestral concerts. It was a pleasure, therefore, to hear the Lyric Suite. This is an orchestration of four of Grieg’s short piano pieces, originally made by Anton Seidl and later revised by Grieg himself. The large orchestra brought out a range of delicate textures, for example phrases for harp emerging from the strings in the opening “Shepherd Boy” and full forces creating a menacing effect in the concluding “March of the Dwarfs”.

Delius’ Violin Concerto is rarely performed. Once seriously out of fashion and never very popular except for a few short pieces, his music has had something of a resurgence in Manchester in recent years. The Hallé and Mark Elder have programmed and recorded several of his works and now was the turn of the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds with the evening’s soloist, Israel-born Guy Braunstein. The concerto is in a single movement comprising three separate sections. The soloist rises out of the full orchestra and falls back into it which gives the impression of a rhapsodic improvisation. There were reminders of Delius’ popular miniatures, but the larger scale (the concerto lasts for about 25 minutes) and the subtle use of a large orchestra, with prominent roles for orchestral soloists in some episodes, creates a wide range of moods. Braunstein’s glorious tone made this a memorable performance. I am convinced that this concerto should take its place with the great violin concertos.

Braunstein returned after the interval to play one of the most popular of all pieces for violin and orchestra, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. This beautiful evocation of the English countryside, written in 1914, can be seen as a nostalgic recollection of an England that would shortly disappear forever. The soloist’s sweet tone was ideally suited to the music and transported the audience into a peaceful summery landscape tinged with poignant recollection of the past.

The tranquillity of The Lark Ascending was shattered by the first screaming chord of the final piece of the evening, Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 6 in E minor. This was written between 1944 and 1947, first performed in 1948 and soon referred to as the composer’s “War Symphony”. Vaughan Williams denied this, saying “it never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music” and said that the finale could be summed up in the words of Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded in a sleep”. As he was quite capable of relating his music to external matters, as in The Lark Ascending or his next symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica, should we not just accept this? Most commentators seem to suggest that there is at least some reference to the Second World War, notably the saxophone solo in the Scherzo, alluding to the bombing of a dance band in a German air raid.

Whether or not the symphony has a programmatic element, it is an amazingly powerful work ranging through strong emotions and in the end providing an overwhelming experience. The four linked movements give the whole orchestra the chance to shine and under Storgårds the BBC Philharmonic rose to the occasion magnificently. The large orchestra played like a single living, breathing entity. The strings sang and brass glowed and the many soloists gave outstanding contributions to the whole. The final movement of the symphony is pianissimo throughout, but this was a completely different pianissimo from the end of The Lark. It is no peaceful pastoral scene but a representation of exhaustion after the turbulence of the previous movements.

The symphony was performed 100 times in the first two years following its première. It has become less popular since then but surely deserves a place in the repertoire as one of the most powerful and original symphonies of the 20th century, along with those of Shostakovich.