Balancing programmes with familiar and unfamiliar works – and often unknown composers – has long been a part of the modus operandi of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Nothing unusual here, of course, in the names of these Norwegian and Finnish composers presented at the Lighthouse, Poole. But the Third Symphony of Sibelius seldom appears on schedules these days (it was last performed here in 2010) yet formed a stirring conclusion to an evening of polished playing and idiosyncratic performances under the baton of Birmingham-born Alpesh Chauhan.

Alpesh Chauhan conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Warmth of tone from muted strings and beguiling wind contributions made for an atmospheric and detailed account of Sibelius’ incidental music Valse triste, with Chauhan deftly coaxing subtleties of expression and dynamic. From its opening reverie, melancholy dominated a score interrupted by passages of impetuous vigour, the whole evoking the dreams of a dying woman dancing with the figure of Death, originally forming Act 1 of Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema.

Romanian soloist Alexandra Dariescu, encased in a striking fuchsia dress, joined the orchestra for an unsentimental account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. From her commanding opening flourish (with incisive timpani), there followed a first movement delivered with exceptional clarity, conductor and soloist fully in accord with a tempo that was on the edge of being immoderate. Dariescu’s no nonsense delivery was not without sensitivity and her cadenza embraced thunderous drama and dazzling passagework, although underlining its Lisztian virtuosity more than poetic nuance. Orchestral tuttis were an equal match for her big boned tone and cameo roles captivated. Much of the Adagio’s melancholic beauty was well conveyed, solo horn and cello pointing up the languor to perfection. Delicate piano elaboration was nicely conjured from Dariescu’s initial bell-like entry, nostalgic without being saccharine and with no shortage of heft for the theme’s pesante return. The finale was a hard driven affair, its passion and tenderness vividly communicated with trumpets scorching the air, and a lovingly shaped flute solo, the orchestra always a considerate partner to Dariescu’s agile and high-powered pianism.

Alexandra Dariescu, Alpesh Chauhan and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

After one of the most popular piano concertos in the repertoire, there followed Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3 in C major, its understated dramas and elusive manner inhabiting a sustained deconstruction of symphonic form. Far removed from its predecessors, its British premiere in 1908 drew a puzzled response from The Times critic who found the first movement seemed “to lack any definite character”. Yet this performance enjoyed plenty of personality, Chauhan fully capturing the first movement’s vernal promise and icy grandeur. It may have lacked a sense of mystery at the start, but there was no denying a febrile energy, its repeated rhythmic patterns and terse melodic shapes underpinning a movement of controlled momentum.

A gentle breeze seemed to sweep through the pastoral second movement, cellos and basses underscoring its rocking metre. Pregnant pauses never impeded the overall flow of a beguiling, disquieting movement which was animated by a masterly sense of trajectory. And so too for the probing gestures of the finale, where abbreviated ideas coalesced with accumulating excitement, its majestic chorale, with trumpets blazing, uplifting and life affirming. A glorious close to an evening, though, at just 70 minutes playing time, one definitely left wanting more. 

****1