My introduction to Carl Nielsen was an interval feature on a television Proms broadcast, presented by comedian Alexei Sayle. It opened with photographs featuring the young Nielsen pulling grotesque gargoyle-like faces, the 19th century equivalent of squeezing into a photo booth and adopting daft poses for each of your shots. Accompanying these images were the stabbing As which energetically crank his “Espansiva” Symphony into action. Those photographs came to mind as the BBC Symphony Orchestra punched out the chords last night. Nielsen’s lively, genial nature permeated the whole performance. Sakari Oramo smiled broadly. The music smiled back.

Sakari Oramo © Jan Olav Wedin
Sakari Oramo
© Jan Olav Wedin

Oramo led a vigorous performance of the first movement, with plenty of brass swagger and thrust in evidence. Nielsen described this movement as “a burst of energy and life affirmation”; those qualities were certainly in evidence here. Oramo, often a restless presence on the podium, bustled the orchestra along merrily, the impetuosity of Nielsen’s writing was infectious.

In complete contrast came the peace and calm of the pastoral second movement. The music here is all shifting clouds and dappled sunlight and it was beautifully performed. String chorales meandered, interspersed with sensitively voiced woodwind interludes. Then, a wordless baritone and soprano join the idyll. Originally, text was penned beneath their parts in the score: “All thoughts vanished. I lie beneath the sky”, but Nielsen abandoned the idea, making their contributions vocal melismas. Lucy Hall and the firm-voiced Marcus Farnsworth, suitably distanced towards the back of the platform, offered fine contributions.

Oramo attacked the third movement Allegretto energetically before principal oboist Richard Simpson unfurled a delicate interlude. The joyous ode of the finale finds Nielsen at his most affable and the BBCSO responded purposefully under Oramo’s guiding baton, leading to a glowing finale.

In their 150th anniversary years, Sibelius and Nielsen are going to be paired together an awful lot in concert programmes. Nielsen had the lion’s share this evening, Sibelius’ contribution being the wisp of a tone poem The Dryad. Inspired by Greek mythology rather than his usual Kalevala, Sibelius keeps the textures sparse until tambourine and castanets accompanying a waltz-like theme hint at Mediterranean warmth. Oramo’s very precise direction kept the dance buoyant.

Federico Colli © Sarah Ferrara
Federico Colli
© Sarah Ferrara
Standing firmly between these two Nordic giants came Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, composed just two years before Nielsen’s “Espansiva” but occupying a very different sound world, full passionate, sweeping romanticism. The young Italian pianist Federico Colli replaced an indisposed Yevgeny Sudbin at short notice, marking his UK concerto debut. Colli’s stage presence is rather dapper: a mop of tight curls, open shirt with scarlet cravat and cummerbund. He looks every inch the elegant young gentleman, right down to kissing the hand of Natalie Chee, guest leader of the BBCSO, before taking up his position at the keyboard.

The first movement of the concerto took some time to click into gear. Colli and Oramo set off at a ruminative pace – introspection seemed to be the order of the day – and the BBCSO strings were lukewarm. The Third doesn’t have to be played as a grandstanding warhorse, as Pavel Kolesnikov’s light-as-a-feather performance with the LPO last autumn demonstrated, but this was too ponderous. However, the cadenza found Colli hitting his stride with imaginative phrasing and impressive technical dexterity.

From there on, the performance grew in stature. Colli imbued the Intermezzo with much poetic tenderness, while the finale thrilled in a cascade of virtuosic pianism. Oramo gave the brass its head, particularly in the concerto’s closing pages where Colli threw caution to the wind. This was an impressive performance, especially given the late notice (he received the call on Wednesday lunchtime) and I doubt it will be long before Colli becomes a regular concerto performer here in London.

***11