Thank goodness for the BBCSO! The London concert season would be far less colourful without it and last night’s ingeniously devised programme made this point in an entertaining and stimulating way.

Kicking off with that perfect concoction of melody, modulations and romantic sentiment - Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, Gardner used pleasingly eager tempi to bring out the enduring freshness in the writing. Unlike some ‘period’ performances of the work, nothing ever felt rushed or ‘classical’ in a dry way. This was a performance that never shirked from its calling as the first ‘Romantic’ symphony.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

The Schubert thread was carried through to the Henze’s Erlkönig - fantasy for orchestra after Goethe’s poem and Schubert’s Op.1, a brief colourful six-minute powerhouse of a piece that surely must have sent many of the audience away wondering why we hear so little of Henze’s music in the UK. Certainly, in this rhythmically charged performance, there was nothing to frighten the horses, ironically.

This was followed by the main event of the first half of the concert; the world première of the orchestral version of ‘A Padmore Cycle’ by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, performed by its dedicatee Mark Padmore. A setting of 11 fragments of poetry, its overall effect is melancholy and introverted, not without a nod to Schubert and even more so to the Haiku-like suggestiveness of Tōru Takemistu, a major influence on the composer. Unfortunately, this new version of the songs seemed to have the effect of making the cycle seem more fragmentary overall. In the piano version, there was a sense of organic growth and seamlessness that seemed perfectly formed that was missing here. Despite a magnetic performance by Padmore, one was frequently drawn more to the potential of the fascinating orchestral writing and guiltily wished that it were unencumbered by the interjections of the vocal line.

John Adams Harmonium from 1981 is one of his finest works. A choral symphony in all but name, it shows the composer at his most sensitive and inventive. The slight suspicion that orchestral colour has outweighed content in some of his more recent large-scale works is not to be found here. Settings of three profound poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson about love and death, the work lives or dies on the virtuosity of the chorus. In this case, the BBC Symphony Chorus certainly delivered the clarity of rhythm and diction, as well as the necessary forcefulness and sweetness of tone as required. This was a performance that seemed to revel in the sonic possibilities of the huge ensemble as much as Adams must have surely enjoyed writing for it.