Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto "Out of Nowhere" received its long overdue UK première by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Leila Josefowicz. Flanked by Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5, this was an exciting programme played brilliantly under Sakari Oramo.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Written in 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto won the prestigious Grawmeyer Award in 2012, but for some reason had never been performed in the UK before tonight. It’s a thrilling piece of music that requires intense focus and skill from the soloist. The work was written for Leila Josefowicz, and her performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed why; her performance was faultless. The Violin Concerto is relentlessly demanding for the soloist, Josefowicz barely got a chance to take a breath but her playing remained impressive throughout. She was able to play the (many) fast sections convincingly, especially in the third movement, "Pulse II" where the addition of a drumkit made the music even more danceable. It was not only Josefowicz’s fast and technical playing that impressed, however; at the beginning of the fourth movement, "Adieu", she gave us a poignant and passionate performance of one the concerto’s few calm moments.

After a performance like this one, it is difficult not to be convinced that this piece of music requires many more performances. It’s a violin concerto where the soloist really seems to battle against the orchestra, the two never really melt together, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra put up quite a fight. Their timing was excellent and the strength of the piece’s rhythms was emphasized throughout the performance. This allowed Josefowicz to shine, but the performance was a great moment of musical collaboration.

Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter was a great opening to the evening that immediately told us this would be an impressive concert. The cello solo was played brilliantly by Susan Monks and Oramo’s interpretation of the music was subtle and precise, while still doing justice to the dramatic aspects of this piece. When listening to Pohjola’s Daugther you can hear many different narratives play out, which sometimes can make it somewhat unfocused, but this was not the case in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance. The performance was warm, while still retaining an element of transparency that Sibelius’s music so needs.

The first two movements of the Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 were similarly good, but very close to being perfunctory; good but not memorable. It turned out that this was somewhat deceptive, as soon as Oramo led the orchestra in the third movement, it was obvious that something special was happening. I have never heard a performance of this movement that was as moving, powerful and sensitive. Oramo’s attention to detail, combined with the orchestra’s excellent playing – the strings were phenomenal – made for an emotional performance that brought me to the verge of tears. The fourth movement received as sensitive a reading. Instead of playing it like a triumphant piece, Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed how haunting a work it can still be. The timpanist’s final notes were more terrifying than triumphant, and the moment of silence commanded by Oramo after the symphony’s end let those notes ring out formidably.

****1