If only more London orchestras would be as bold and adventurous as the BBC Symphony Orchestra in their programming. Admittedly there aren’t the same commercial imperatives present for the publicly funded BBCSO but, to drive home the point, this boldly curated programme, showcasing two ambitious works premiered during the last two years, proved to be a most stimulating evening.

Hannu Lintu conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The evening cantered off with a cracking interpretation of Sibelius’ forward looking tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise from 1908. Hannu Lintu, replacing the indisposed Sakari Oramo, found the perfect tempo to create a sense of movement in the opening section. The blazing brass, depicting one of the most beautiful sunrises in music, were as rich and golden toned as they needed to be at the close of the work.

Brett Dean is a master of orchestral writing. His understanding of the mechanics of the orchestra and his confidence in achieving the effects he is looking for, is second to none. His energetic and purposeful thematic material is presented in the most apposite way and his works always find a balance between challenging his listeners and being entertaining. His Piano Concerto: Gneixendorf Music – A Winter’s Journey is no exception. Written to a co-commission by the soloist Jonathan Biss and receiving its UK premiere here, it is inspired by Beethoven and in particular his “Emperor” Concerto, of which wisps of themes and harmonies emerge from the fabric of the work. In three sections, relating to events late in Beethoven’s life, it furrows its own energetic and, at times, haunted path. Biss was so inside the music – and clearly enthusiastic about it – that he was outstanding on every level, including running through the orchestra to play an upright piano, as required in the score several times. Lintu and BBCSO were exemplary partners in this adventure, finding the right level of energy at every turn and mastering the expertly put together orchestral textures with ease.

Jonathan Biss
© BBC | Mark Allan

Kaija Saariaho extraordinary Vista, was also given an equally impressive performance. Saariaho is a very different composer from Dean, so where his textures are about clarity and precision, hers are more impressionistic and cumulative. What they both share is the ability to build large and compelling structures and Vista is a work which lives up to its name and opens up some very wide horizons across its 25-minute span. Inspired by the grandeur of the Californian coastline, it also has at its heart a concern for the destruction of the natural world, so everything in the work leads to a second section which is violent and abrasive. A work then to be savoured, of rare and mysterious beauty, expertly performed. 

Finally, the UK premiere of Manuel Hidalgo's arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was a miracle of programming, somehow linking to all the preceding works through the daring of its musical language and vision. With a large string group working its socks off, it gained in grandeur and power, but lost its edge-of-the-seat, grating intensity. The BBCSO strings deserved the enthusiastic applause they received and when the final major key victory arrived, a fittingly hard-won end to a fascinating evening.