The 1920s were a time of massive change, socially and culturally, and this concert demonstrated how much the musical palette expand in the years directly after The Great War. And yet an underlying sense of foreboding seems to unite the works presented to us here. Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO offered a varied quartet of works from around this decade.

Alexander Toradze © CAMI
Alexander Toradze
© CAMI

No work in the repertoire captures that ‘end of an era’ atmosphere more clearly than Ravel La Valse from 1920. Starting deceptively as a sickly sweet waltz, it gradually curdles and then implodes. Despite its theatrical roots as a ballet score Diaghilev (who rejected it), this was a work to which Ravel felt very close. In its final violent outburst, one senses a ferocity otherwise absent from Ravel’s music, which is perhaps the only indication that the composer had witnessed many terrible events of the war first-hand.

Any successful performance of the work needs to walk the tightrope of flexible rubato, with a strong sense of forward movement and a clear trajectory towards the climactic outburst that ends the work. Oramo certainly had the measure of the work in terms of its dynamic progression and the BBCSO was rich in tone when it needed to be and lean and mean as the piece progressed. What struck me about the performance was how Oramo brought out the subtle detail in the orchestration and how he revealed the work's dark underbelly from the outset. The final peroration certainly packed a punch above its weight, as it should.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major is almost an exact contemporary of La Valse and was the most untroubled work in the programme. Nevertheless the moments of fun and ecstasy in the work are often counterbalanced with harder edged music, particularly in the last movement, which threatens to overwhelm the good humour at times. Rather like the Ravel, a successful performance of this work needs to find a balance between both elements to bring out the quirky originality of the confection. Alexander Toradze certainly knew how to explore every twist and turn in this wonderfully effusive work. His strength and rhythmic precision were never mechanical and the overall impression was of great humanity and wit, with the right touches of sensitivity and angst. Very alert playing from the BBCSO showed us the clever the interplay between soloist and orchestra and all concerned demonstrated what a true masterpiece of the concerto repertoire this piece is. Toradze then gave us a very touching encore with a performance of a Scarlatti Aria, which he dedicated to a young relative of his who had recently died.

Nielsen’s Symphony no. 5, again a product of the immediate post-war years, was the most complex work of the evening, both in terms of its musical language, its formal layout and its tone/message. The bleak first movement, with its keening woodwind and apocalyptic climax pitting the side drum against the whole orchestra, is clear enough in its links to the war, but the relentlessly thrusting second movement is harder to pin down. Is this a celebration of peace or a life affirming statement in the face of so much death, as in the composer’s previous symphony, The Inextinguishable? Perhaps neither of these things and the best performance of this movement brings out an element of forced jollity and even hysteria, leaving the listener coming away feeling disquieted rather than uplifted. There is nothing quite like it in the repertoire.

It was clear from the outset that Sakari Oramo had the full measure of the work. The first movement was ideally paced. The BBCSO woodwinds were at their very best here, razor sharp and responsive. At the climax, the side drum was truly combative, sounding more and more like gunfire as the passage progressed. The desolate final bars were hauntingly caught and when the brash opening bars of the second movement burst in on us jarringly, the ambivalent energy was set on its relentless way. Oramo certainly coaxed a fine virtuoso performance from the BBCSO, which has clearly developed a feel for Nielsen’s musical impetus. The whirlwind ups and down of the movement were delivered with panache and the complex fugal passages were clear and spontaneous. In the final moments the short-lived arrival at E flat major blazed effectively, but didn’t erase the memory of the desolation and hysteria that preceded it.

A very fine account of one of the greatest symphonies in the repertoire and by all that was right, it should have had the last word. However, as a counterbalance to La Valse, the evening was rounded off by a very fine performance of Ravel’s Bolero from later in the 1920s. Coming after the seriousness of the Nielsen the effect was to add an air of gravitas to a piece which is much more ‘end of an era’ than it initially appears to be. A fitting end then, to a fabulous five star evening.