Two works of personal victory, written at virtually the same point in history and against a backdrop of suffering, made up this very successful concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. The difference between the two pieces is that Gerald Finzi's Cello Concerto is now virtually forgotten in the concert hall, while Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony is arguably overplayed.

Paul Watkins © Nina Large
Paul Watkins
© Nina Large

Soloist Paul Watkins was clearly totally committed to the concerto which opened the concert, at times adopting a Du Pré-like “heart on sleeve” candour. Make no mistake, this is a work that can take this passionate approach. Written after the composer had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Finzi's usual poignant lyricism is set in a much more turbulent landscape. Although there are echoes of Elgar in its discursive style and Walton in its jazzier moments, Finzi is still very much his own man. This performance certainly left a strong impression and made it even more regrettable that the composer didn’t live longer to give us more large scale works of this quality.

The deeply troubled opening movement was wonderfully paced. The danger here is that the diverse material is tricky to hold together. Angst-ridden themes alternate with lyricism and all this seems deliberately unresolvable. Watkins was fully on top of this structural challenge. In the more conventional slow movement, possibly a portrait of the composer's wife, the melodic fertility that marks the composer’s style is again up a notch in passion and poignancy. Watkins did this beautiful creation proud.

The finale is the most difficult movement to bring off. It can sound trivial after all that has gone before, but here the positive elements sounded defiant and strong in the face of the pain. Again this was achieved as a result of Watkins' committed approach, as well as excellent tempo choices from Davis and strong support from the BBCSO. Watkins waved the score enthusiastically when receiving his applause and rightly so.

Unusually, Shostakovich composed his Tenth Symphony over a number of years. As a result of this long gestation it is perhaps the most symphonically coherent of the cycle and many consider it to be his greatest. Others such as the Fourth and the Eighth may have more strikingly original material, written in the heat of the moment, but on this occasion the composer had time to think through his material, as he was forced to wait until the right moment to premiere his new work. And this right moment was shortly after the death of Stalin, whose looming presence overshadows the first two movements.

This performance seemed to find a very special insight into this complicated work. The BBCSO has rarely sounded so inspired and committed. Davis found the right tempi at every turn and this particularly benefited the long first movement. The flowing Moderato allowed the drama to unfold without dragging, with the central climax fully integrated. The Scherzo has never sounded more menacing than here, again down to tempi choices and also the graded accentuation of the rhythmic pulse, bringing forward climactic moments. The Andante saw some beautiful playing from the woodwind and horns, who were characterful throughout.

The challenge for conductors in the finale is to hold onto the tension until the defiantly affirmative coda. After a tentative introduction the music seems to be sensing the end of darkness, but it still lurks there in the shadows. Davis and the BBCSO achieved just the right balance of uninhibited virtuosity with a dangerous edge. The final bars here seemed like a true victory for the composer with his musical signature dominant and, for once, devoid of irony.