Three works from three Austrians; Thomas Larcher from this century, Gustav Mahler from the last, and to begin, a certain son of Salzburg from the 18th century. Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony has particularly stirring outer movements, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played with plenty of fire in the opening Allegro con spirito. There was little in the way of historically informed performance manners, the absence of string vibrato apart, but rather a no-holds-barred attack once common in these works when played by a modern orchestra. The authentic instrument ensembles, who of course offer such tonal insights, have not claimed a monopoly of the first great era of symphonic writing, and the BBC musicians really staked a claim to this music in the style and panache of their playing.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Sakari Oramo encouraged a wide dynamic range, not least from the trumpets and kettledrums (with hard sticks) which duly blazed and thundered, while the strings were deft in their figuration at swift tempi. But the spirit of the dance was never far away as Oramo, batonless, was balletic on the podium, not only in the Andante and the Minuet, but in the final Presto. The BBC players seemed at one with their Chief Conductor, and this was so much more than a 20-minute curtain-raiser. It was on balance the best combination of a work and its performance of the evening – and it was still only five minutes to eight.

The orchestra performs three works this season by Larcher (born 1963), of which Nocturne – Insomnia was the second. Its dates are stated as “2007-8, revised 2017” suggesting dissatisfaction with that 2008 version, or further thoughts, or both. The work begins in some Fafner-haunted subterranean gloom, very deep, slow and soft, and gradually rises to the highest notes, if not exactly the light. Around the midpoint there was more motion, colour and tireless invention, some it quite challenging for the players.

There were plenty of spectral sounds, not all from conventional sources, for the flapping of paper, drumming on a shoebox, and the scraping of piano strings all made ghostly contributions. These were on the threshold of sound, noises rather than notes, suggesting that “did I hear someone in the house?” anxiety familiar to sleepless neurotics. The piece wound down to a close rather than repose, for as the composer said in his note “the state of insomnia has not been... assuaged. Not even the small ‘sleep phase’ at the end can convince us otherwise.” Perhaps the fact that Larcher needs to tell us how to react suggests his piece does not yet speak for itself, and it might be one to which he returns again, like the nagging thoughts of the insomniac. It certainly made an impression, and the composer leapt on to the platform, (literally, ignoring the steps provided for the purpose), to receive a very warm reception.

Oramo clearly loves The Song of the Earth, and conducted it with the sustained line, powerful surges of emotion, and concern for colour the orchestral score needs. The singers though were at times left to fend for themselves. The opening of the “Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow” is a notorious accident black spot, as the scoring hardly relents for the tenor’s entry “Schon winkt der Wein”, where “Wein” was the first word to ring though the texture. Perhaps Stuart Skelton’s vocal heft could cope with orchestral bullying, which is Mahler’s fault at that moment, and is later rare in the chamber-like scoring. The refrain “Dark is life, dark is death” was sung with sorrowing intensity. In “Youth”, the third song’s exquisite oriental picture of a convivial gathering in “a pavilion of green and white porcelain”, Skelton fined down his large voice, attended to the lightly dancing rhythm of this one unclouded scene in the cycle, and realised the mood in perfect harmony with the trilling woodwind. If the taxing top notes of “The Drunkard in Spring” were a stretch, the spirit of sublime recklessness – “What does spring matter to me? Let me get drunk!” – was embraced superbly.

Elisabeth Kulman has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice, but it is not a large voice, and Mahler asked for an alto. Since the contralto voice is an endangered species, we often here a mezzo (the baritone option is surely a desperate measure only). Kulman’s stylistic grace, pure tone and native diction offered considerable compensation, so that her first two songs came across well . The great final "Abschied" lacked something in sombre gravitas, but her concentration captured the audience, and the long flute and oboe solos were wonderfully eloquent. Mahler worried about the impact of this masterpeice’s constant intimations of mortality, asking “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” Oh no, even in a flawed performance, The Song of the Earth fills the hearer with its life-affirming carpe diem message.