The BBC Philharmonic’s latest concert at Bridgewater Hall presented three contrasting works from the early part of the 20th century and one of the best known of all classical symphonies, Beethoven’s Fifth, all of which came together to produce a very satisfying evening of music.

Nicholas Collon © Benjamin Ealovega
Nicholas Collon
© Benjamin Ealovega

First came Stravinsky’s Apollo, written in 1927 and 1928 (here performed in the 1947 version). The subject of this ballet is Apollo and the muses (reduced from nine to three). It is a long way from the composer’s early ballets and even his earlier “neoclassical” ballet Pulcinella. Apollo is scored for strings alone and so does not have the variety of instrumental colours which were so characteristic of the works with which Stravinsky made his reputation. Rather it is an elegant, poised score, often looking back to the Baroque period – and specifically the French Baroque. Despite the general coolness it still has moments of warmth and melody. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic under conductor Nicholas Collon brought it off splendidly with a stylish performance.  

Sibelius wrote a number of works for violin and orchestra apart from his ever-popular Violin Concerto, but few of them get concert performances. It was therefore a pleasure to have the opportunity to hear the Six Humoresques played by eminent Canadian violinist James Ehnes. Sibelius’ son-in-law stated that the six short pieces were intended to form a suite even though they were assigned by the publisher to two different opus numbers. They were written in 1917 and 1918 but they do not give any indications of the difficulties facing the composer as the result of the First World War and the Finnish Civil War. Sibelius’ biographer Erik Tawastjerna wrote that in the Humoresques the composer “captured the lyrical, dancing soul of the violin”. They cover a range of moods but are predominantly cheerful. Humoresque no. 5 has a memorable catchy tune. Ehnes is a thoughtful performer and while he made the most of the opportunities to display his virtuosity in, for example, the Humoresque no. 2 and the more substantial No. 3 his playing was never flashy but firmly connected with the orchestra. He captured to perfection the delicacy required in the fourth. If there is a difficulty with these pieces it is that each one leaves us wishing for more. Nos. 1 and 6 in particular seemed to stop abruptly.

After the interval we had more Stravinsky, his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, for brass and woodwind, thus nicely balancing the Apollo for strings which opened the concert. It was written in 1920 and was given here in the composer’s 1947 revised version. It was as a memorial to Debussy who had died in 1918.The title refers to the original sense of the Greek work symphony, “sounding together” and so, like Apollo, there was a classical connection but rather than being cool and sophisticated the Symphonies are harsh and austere. The wind writing is sometimes reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, perhaps both harking back to the traditions of pre-Christian Russia. The winds of the BBC Philharmonic gave a convincing performance.

The rest of the orchestra returned to the stage for Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor. This time the orchestra performed standing up (except for cellos, basses and timpani). Those famous opening notes immediately made me forget all the previous performances of this symphony that I have heard and focus entirely on the glorious music being produced at the moment. Over two centuries after its première this must still be one of the most gripping pieces of music ever written. Collon and the BBC Philharmonic never let the drive and tension slacken and at the same time let all the details of the orchestration come through clearly. The richness and depth of sound powerfully brought out the beauty and rigour of Beethoven’s musical argument. This was a first rate performance.