Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo seems to have a natural affinity with English music which, together with a wonderfully alert BBC Symphony Orchestra brought huge dividends to Friday night’s Barbican concert. This was no ordinary programme of English music; and was more a case of Edwardian England meets modern Celtic fusion. Butterworth and Elgar – both masters of wistful melancholy – framed the contemporary Anna Clyne (born 1980) whose eclectic and attractive new work draws on one of Ireland’s greatest poets for inspiration.

Sakari  Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

 The evening began with Butterworth’s bittersweet orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad, a work based on his own earlier settings of poems by A.E. Housman and published in the last years of the previous century. Butterworth’s varying tempos were beautifully judged by Oramo and the whole account gave the impression that conductor and musicians were shaking hands with a much-loved friend. I can’t recall when I last heard a string section begin so quietly; their sound at the beginning emerged out of nothing, appearing as if by magic, and was then followed equally effortlessly by two perfectly poised clarinets. Blend, balance and intonation throughout were fabulous. Butterworth’s orchestral output may be modest (there are also three Orchestral Idylls) but a century after his death his legacy remains undiminished and with performances like this it is no surprise.

For those unfamiliar with the London-born Anna Clyne she came to our notice in 2013 at the last night of the Proms with her work Masquerade. For the last fifteen years or so she has been living in the United States and has recently been composer-in-residence to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during which time she took up Irish fiddle classes. A short poem by W.B. Yeats (written two years before Butterworth’s death) provided the stimulus for her new work, The Seamstress – for violin and orchestra which received its UK première on Friday. Written for the violinist Jennifer Koh, the work is essentially a concerto (but without any leanings towards virtuosity) which the composer describes as an “imaginary ballet”.

In ten sections and lasting some 25 minutes The Seamstress demonstrates a sure ear for orchestral sonorities with similar instrumental forces to the Butterworth but with additional percussion. Amongst its many imaginative moments was the opening string section with its harmonically modal and slithering textures. Harp, two flutes and vibraphone created attractive sonorities later as did another string-based passage and harmonically reminiscent of Charles Ives. Throughout, Koh was an energetic soloist, by turns soulful and radiant, always supported by alert BBC players under Oramo’s invigorating direction.

Elgar’s Symphony no. 2 in E flat major is lavishly orchestrated and behind its surface grandeur and musical complexity there lies a deep emotional core; its outward passion permeated by wistful uncertainties and deep solemnity. These qualities were admirably caught by Oramo in a performance that made clear his passion for Elgar and the special chemistry he has with his players.

The narrative sweep of the first movement, fashioned with well-judged buoyancy and ardour, was given a wholly satisfying sense of line with finely balanced orchestral layers. Strings played with honeyed tone in the Larghetto, its nobilmente character finely articulated and its funeral tread reminding us of its dedication to Edward VII. The Rondo third movement was thrilling, although I missed a pulling up of the tempo for that tremendous climax where pounding timpani emerges triumphantly. Energy pulsed through the finale too, with Oramo finding just the right flexible tempo and the orchestra never failing to sound anything other than polished. This was one of those performances that represented a perfect marriage between conductor and orchestra.

****1