The BBC Philharmonic delivered superb performances in a fascinating programme under their Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds, finding an unusual mix of wit and pathos at the Bridgewater Hall.

John Storgårds, © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds,
© Marco Borggreve

The concert opened with Sibelius’s 1914 The Bard, one of the less frequently heard of the Fin’s tone poems. Harpist Clifford Lantaff played his crucial part with outstanding beauty and sensitivity, and the string sound carried a suitably warm glow. The life of the eponymous character was played out with a gently wistful tone, successfully launching a concert of brilliantly handled 20th-century works.

The harp was also prominent in the other smaller-scale piece of the evening. Part of the orchestra’s Mancunian Way series, John Foulds’s Keltic Suite was given all the “light music” good spirits it needed. Storgårds launched into the first bar whilst barely on the rostrum, and most of the piece continued in a similar style: dashing, flashy and, at the end, quite rousing. The middle movement was quite different. Before launching his composition career, Foulds was a cellist with the Hallé, and the cello solo in the slow movement was exquisitely well-played by Steven Callow in collaboration with the harp. The rest of the strings took up the warm, Scotch melody with ravishing beauty. The finale retained the good spirits of the first movement, and was a delight to behold. For a relative obscurity, it was very well received by the audience.

The highlight of the evening was Guy Braunstein’s mesmerising performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no 1 in A minor. The composition of this work in 1948 coincided with the composer’s second denunciation by the state, this time for formalism and “anti-democratic tendencies”. As such, the concerto was quietly finished and reserved for performance seven years later. The correlation of Shostakovich’s life to his music is a controversial topic, but the achingly beautiful playing from Braunstein and the orchestra in the Passacaglia slow movement inevitably brought to mind the composer's personal struggles. Woodwind and tuba, a strange pairing, combined to good effect, followed by some deeply moving playing from Braunstein. His sound worked very well in conjunction with solo horn and cor anglais, and he showed great willingness to balance himself to the melody of the lower strings in places. There was rapt silence for his superbly beguiling cadenza, all rustles and coughs suspended for a moment.

The more dashing passages also came off with outstanding results. Storgårds maintained close engagement with his forces, crouching and lunging at times, to inspire vivacious energy in the playing. The vigorous percussive passages, with bold statements on timpani and xylophone, brought to mind the sound world of the Nielsen we would later hear. Braunstein gave similarly fierce bow attacks and a sense of tireless energy. The agility and direct sound of his Shostakovich is well suited to the Philharmonic strings, and both he and the orchestra fully deserved the huge cheer that answered the last note. It is uncommon to see an audience so totally won over by a concerto, but the high quality of playing from both soloist and orchestra tonight earned multiple calls back to the stage. On the fourth, Braunstein offered an encore of a Fritz Kreisler work for violin and piano; after jokingly looking around for a piano, and muttering during the piano passages, he launched into a superbly witty digestif to the concerto. The grinning orchestra craned their necks to see him, and the audience seemed thrilled at the interval.

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 6, “Sinfonia Semplice”, shows a sharp turn from his earlier symphonies. Like much of the rest of the evening's programme, it featured a complex blend of wit and troubled passages. Storgårds took the first movement at a relatively brisk pace. There was a strong sense of innocence in the crisply articulated rhythms, and some beautifully played melodic passages, such as that shared between horn and strings. The aggressive discordance which disrupts proceedings after movement’s climax was attacked with gusto.

The “Humoreske” second movement’s battles between woodwind and percussion were acted out with excellent humour. Soloists gave strong character to their lines, almost suggestive of bickering children, whilst their parents, the trombones, yawned loudly. Similar mischief was to be found in the finale, in which the bassoons have the first and last words. In between, some furious string passages and a lilting waltz carried great energy. It was superb fun, culminating in a final bassoon raspberry to close the concert.

Sadly, it seemed that inventiveness of the programme meant that the audience was substantially smaller than these fine performances deserved. Luckily, the concert is to be broadcast on Radio 3 (2pm, Friday 1st November), and it will be well worth hearing.