The Bayerische Staatsorchester was founded in 1523, so this tour celebrates its 500th birthday. The Barbican hears two concerts of their meat and drink, the Austro-German classics, under Vladimir Jurowski. Tomorrow brings Wagner, Schumann and Mahler, here we had Berg and Strauss, preceded by a UK premiere.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva’s 2002 single-movement Third Symphony “White Interment” portrays “being trapped in an icy prison: drawn into a blizzard, buried beneath a snowdrift, succumbing to sleep”. Despite the symphonic label (a late decision) Poleva uses blocks of sounds as much as themes, and very evocatively. From its atmospheric opening, via chords shape-shifting across a rich harmonic palette, Poleva builds an accumulating intensity right up to its final piercing shriek. It said a lot in just 13 minutes.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is famously dedicated "To the Memory of an Angel", Manon Gropius, who Berg knew and who died in 1935 aged just 19. So an in memoriam work but one containing much variety, including snatches of waltz, Ländler, a folk song, even a Bach chorale. Soloist Vilde Frang seemed focussed mostly on the elements of lamentation, and in such a quietly intimate, confiding manner that not all the notes made it past the fifth row of the stalls. Her sound, if slender, was often beautiful. Yet despite more extroversion in the second movement, and some incisive solo flourishes, she never persuaded us that this really was her piece. Concerto soloists are rarely this self-effacing.

Vilde Frang, Vladimir Jurowski and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is a work few organisations could afford to take on tour because of the sheer number of players on the platform and offstage – as much a job creation scheme as an orchestration. But this (carefully judged) excess is justified by the graphic descriptive quality of the sights and sounds of this day in the mountains, vividly rendered by these impressive musicians. Strauss provides solos for many of them, and each was characterful, not least the awe-struck oboe solo as it drinks in the vista from the summit. Jurowski’s mastery of this complex score was shown especially in the closing sequence of Sunset – Epilogue – Night, so eloquent in phrasing, pacing, balance and therefore feeling. It seemed the ascent to a summit, via perils and storms to eventual descent was, after all, a metaphor for an individual life, a corollary to the composer’s Ein Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica. Not bad for this self-styled “first-class, second rate composer”.

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester
© Mark Allan | Barbican

No encore is needed after such a piece, surely? But a privileged view of the violins’ music stands revealed another score and touring orchestras, like football teams, need to give a bit extra away from home. But what could possibly serve? That self-styled “first-class, first-rate” composer, Richard Wagner, and one of even his finest passages, the Prelude to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger. The Bayerische Staatsorchester is a great opera orchestra, and must play this score often in Munich. But liberated from the pit, what a glorious sound they made. The depth and warmth of the string sound, the golden nobility of the horn section, showed their essential quality as much as the Strauss. Jurowski’s deeply affectionate account revealed the very soul of Hans Sachs. That great Nuremberger, by the way, trained as a Mastersinger in Munich, and wrote his famous song in praise of Luther, which is heard in this Prelude, in 1523... the very year this orchestra was born. Some encores are inevitable.