BBC Radio 3 made Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall its home for a special performance of Northern European music on Saturday night. John Storgårds led the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in performances of Sibelius’ Rakastava, Nielsen’s iconic Clarinet Concerto and Shostakovich’s ground-breaking Fourth Symphony.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

The evening began with Sibelius’ hauntingly beautiful Rakastava (“The Lover”) for strings. The orchestra immediately had the audience in the palm of their hands through their imaginative treatment of the opening. The sudden cut after the opening phrase of the work was executed with decisive control and the fluidity of the ritardando was judged perfectly, indicating Storgårds was as authoritative as a puppet master.

Originally composed for a male choir, Rakastava, is riddled with the same hymn-like phases that are typical of a chorale. The different voices of a choir are very distinct and often intertwine to highlight a particular section. This was mimicked excellently by the orchestra, notably the viola section, which managed to step forward and shy away like the sun peeping through a blanket of clouds. At times the music called for an even quieter level of piano. The dialogue between the solo violin and cello in the third movement was a joy to listen to, but I felt the violin struggled to speak out as much as the cello, who delivered his part excellently, maintaining a perfect balance throughout the performance.

This criticism carries over to Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto. Soloist, Sabine Meyer, was a wonderful ambassador for the instrument, showcasing the amazing versatility and different tones and styles the clarinet can produce. Unfortunately, this was only heard occasionally at the beginning, as the soloist was largely masked by the orchestra. However, Meyer was a joy to hear; from her engaging performance and her impressive fingerwork to her variety of sound. From shrill screeches to the pure, sweet sounds of the piano sections, every conceivable timbre was accounted for and I remained fully engaged throughout Meyer’s performance. As the performance continued, the orchestra worked well with the soloist and the two sounds blended together wonderfully, especially in the antiphonal section of the second movement. This relationship flourished throughout the third movement which culminated in the beautiful partnership of low clarinet sounds and ethereal string harmonics.

The high point of the evening was undoubtedly Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Hooked from the very first shrill cry of the piccolo, this was an exciting performance from beginning to end. Cellos showcased their ability to take on a dozen different characters and match the mood of the orchestra from the sheer aggression of the opening to the lyrical dynamic swells of the third movement. The percussion section certainly made their presence known and matched the imposing fortes of the rest of the orchestra throughout the symphony. Although it took a while for the orchestra to embrace the quieter sections of the work, the piece eventually evolved into dynamic ranges that beggared belief.

As the first movement hurtled towards its first major climax, the orchestra delivered a rapid rallentando in a very short space of time, which I felt diminished the effect of the subsequent bars. The woodwinds were certainly the stars of the show as they delivered every utterance with purpose, attack and a distinct Shostakovich stamp that could have perhaps been echoed more by the strings, notably the violin solo in the first movement. Once again, the percussion were not sidelined to an accompanying role but really stepped forward to take centre stage, particularly at the end of the second movement. Often, the strings still dominate this section of the piece, but this time the clicking percussion hammered through like a ticking time bomb, accentuating the intense pressure and foreboding of the work as a whole.

Rhythm governed the third movement and every note was played with the right precision and accuracy. As the music scurries near the start of the movement, every instrument snapped back at the audience with a good deal of attack and bite. As the hall rumbled with a thunderous timpani roll that evolved from the tiniest of sounds, the orchestra launched itself into its final climax with cymbal crashes that made you shiver from head to toe before a hauntingly beautiful end. Without a touch of vibrato, the string section accomplished a new level of pianissimo and a calm tranquillity that shrouded the work in an icy coldness that was enhanced by the warning fanfare of muted trumpet and the chilling notes of the ghostly celeste. The effect was simply stunning and left the majority of the audience unable to respond before a rapturous applause that literally left people shouting for more.