Manchester favourite Nobuyuki Tsujii made a welcome return to the BBC Philharmonic with Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto, followed by a thrilling performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, conducted by Juanjo Mena.

Nobuyuki Tsujii © Yuji Hori
Nobuyuki Tsujii
© Yuji Hori

The concert began, though, with a world première. Emily Howard was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to write her new work, Axon, for the BBC Philharmonic. The neurological title links to other works in her output such as Calculus for the Nervous System, and, in her own words, reflects “the transmission of musical data throughout a structure”. There was a readily identifiable sense of electricity in tonight’s performance, with impulsive outbursts ricocheting around the orchestra. Much of the work is highly aggressive, from the brutal percussive opening, led by some impressive timpani solos, to some vigorous trombone glissandi later on. The central section consists of a bed of sustained pianissimo notes in the strings, with violently stabbed chords from other sections interrupting. The idea of a firing nerve was clearly conveyed in the sparking bursts of sound bouncing around the stage, to which the orchestra gave excellent aggressive energy. Despite the daring 20-minute length of the work, it seemed to be over in a flash of brassy eruptions. It was reasonably well received, and will certainly be worth hearing again in future performances.

Nobuyuki Tsujii formed a close relationship with the BBC Philharmonic during their 2011 tour of Japan, which was cut short by the large earthquake of that year. He has since made hugely popular return visits to the orchestra, including at this year’s Proms. There was very obvious good feeling between conductor and soloist at the end of tonight’s Grieg, and the large standing ovation suggested similar for the audience.

The challenge with this most popular of concertos is to find some fresh expression in it. Mena and Tsujii did a reasonably good job of this tonight by giving a light-hearted performance which shied away from overt displays of melodrama. Opportunities for grand displays of power were avoided from the outset, but a continued sense of excitement was upheld. The upper strings shimmered, and the woodwind articulation was light and crisp in the first movement. In the Adagio, the cellos produced a full, rich tone without wallowing in emotion. Tsujii’s own playing here was beautifully fluid in his legato, and always well phrased and shaped. The finale was imbued with a dancing, rhythmic propulsion. Tension was slowly driven up towards the climax, but even here the overriding atmosphere was of joy and lightness, rather than a blazing close to blow away any earlier turmoil. Tsujii gave two encores after many returns to the stage.

The finest performance of the evening was saved for the other A minor work, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. Though numbered as his third of five, this was actually the last symphony that he completed. Mena favoured a relatively big-boned approach, although the string section was slightly pared down. Sounds were generally warm and thick in texture, and there was a constant sense of energy in the dance-like rhythms which pervade the symphony.

The first movement’s introduction began unsentimentally, before launching into a quick, fleet-footed main subject. The tempo really kicked on at the Assai animato, and the resulting intensity was well maintained. Details such as the cello countermelody at the recapitulation were well highlighted without disrupting the driving energy. The Vivace non troppo second movement was suitably vivacious in the breezy dashing woodwind solos, although the thick textures occasionally threatened to blur the various musical lines. The horn section played superbly throughout, well led by Andrew Budden (remarkably Mendelssohnian in appearance) in some tricky passages.

The slow movement combined soft introspection with some anguished, broad tutti moments. The finale, then, was a welcome return to the thrilling energy of the second movement. Mena did a good job of keeping strict control over the frequent dotted rhythms as well as creating a good sense of long shape. The bridge passage to the coda, normally played at a slower tempo, was rather glossed over without quite setting up the sudden major key coda, but the clarinet solo was nevertheless lyrical and mysterious. The coda, where the horns lead a rousing chorus of the noble closing melody, was a joyous affair, finishing a highly enjoyable evening.

One small gripe about the programme note: Nobuyuki Tsujii’s playing has attracted substantial praise in performances across the world, and so it was disappointing to see that the first three words in his programme note biography were “Blind since birth...”. Whilst his blindness undeniably makes his achievements all the more amazing, his playing surely deserves higher mention than his disability, rather than selling him a “the blind pianist”.