Last year the BBC Philharmonic completed its season with John Storgårds’ survey of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. This year it is Carl Nielsen’s turn, with the six symphonies interposed by Mahler’s Wunderhorn lieder over ten days in Manchester.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Tonight’s concert, the first in the cycle, was at once a dazzling tour de force of Nielsen and also a brilliantly conceived selection of the Wunderhorn songs in an atmospherically darkened Bridgewater Hall. The Mahler was sung by Roderick Williams, who brought immeasurable character, charm and poignancy to the four songs selected for his rich baritone. The first, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, is unmistakably Mahlerian in its martial trumpet calls. The first three of tonight’s songs revolve around some sort of verbal exchange between (would-be) lovers, and Williams tackled this with great style and richness of character. He would adjust his tone to suit muted strings where required, and in turn inspired impressively sensitive playing from the brass section in their soft fanfares.

The balance between soloist and orchestra was occasionally askew in the Lied des Verfikgten im Turm, with Williams’ impassioned instance that “Thoughts are free!” sometimes struggling to cut through the stringent orchestral accompaniment. The detail and personality given to the protagonists of each song remained admirably strong, though, and both soloist and orchestra seemed to be having enormous fun in the prisoner’s lines of the second song and the childlike, warm-hearted themes of the third song, Verlor’ne Müh. The fine details in the woodwind and horn parts were attended to with precision and elegance, but it was Williams’ great beauty of tone and compelling characterisation that merited an extended ovation at the end of Weh hat dies Liedlein erdacht?.

It was appropriate enough, on the Nielsen’s 150th birthday, to begin with his First Symphony, a work from his late twenties of which the composer remained fond for many years. The orchestral playing in both symphonies tonight was incisive and translucent in texture, shining lights on every detail. Elsewhere, in the more meditative passages of the opening movement, Storgårds would extract great warmth from the string section whilst maintaining an exciting sense of anticipation, which shed a good deal of light on the greater architecture of the symphony. Similarly, Storgårds’ recognition and highlighting of such moments as the timpanist’s bold strophe in the first movement laid the symphonies out in a superbly clear schematic. Rarely have I heard these works so convincingly constructed.

The strings brought a rich, full-bodied legato to the slow movement, against pleasingly light high horn solos. The horns played with the same confident stride they brought to last year’s Sibelius cycle, but were also capable of great sensitivity in ensemble with the woodwind principals. By contrast the fourth movement, marked Allegro con fuoco, went off like a rocket, with furious energy carrying the music to a noisy climax.

High expectations after the excellent first half were firmly outstripped by one of the most dashing, energetic performances of The Inextinguishable one could hope to hear. From its wild, brutal opening to life-affirming coda, Storgårds drove the music ahead with ferocious energy. This was much assisted by the superb, virtuosic timpani playing of Paul Turner and Geraint Daniel, whose bold contributions inspired fine playing from the orchestra in front of them. The tutti sound found great joy in the apotheosis of the first movement, emerging from a very turbulent development passage. Further excellent wind playing was to be heard in the second movement, both in solo passages and in ensemble with each other and the string section, playing with pleasing chamber-like qualities. Similar precision of ensemble was evident in the Poco adagio third movement between timpani and pizzicato strings, while elsewhere Storgårds painted the music on a vast canvas with a strong sense of spaciousness.

The finale was full of testosterone and swagger, both from Storgårds, who must have been close to blowing a fuse by the end, and his two timpanists on opposite sides of the stage. The former neatly ratcheted up huge tension ahead of the final thunderous timpani exchange while spurring on the most wonderful sense of flowing melody going in the various appearances of the symphony’s chief theme. The final, exultant proclamation of this was enough to set the heart racing. It was thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff, and promises a great deal for the rest of the cycle.