There was a decidedly American feel to the first half of this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jordan de Souza, so much so that I kept wishing that those responsible for programming had been somewhat bolder. Why not a symphony by Copland, Harris or Price in the second half rather than by Tchaikovsky? Perhaps de Souza had wanted to demonstrate his credentials in a wide range of repertory. Or please the box-office. At any rate, Fate failed to come up trumps in his case. When in 1876 Tchaikovsky saw Carmen in Paris, it shattered him to the core. Those critical and fateful moments in Bizet’s opera are all in F minor, the key of what became his own Fourth Symphony.

Jordan de Souza conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

To start with the positives: de Souza was very good at balancing individual sections of the orchestra and polishing the surface of the sound. Quite rare among young conductors, he understands that the brass section is not there to drown out all the other players but to provide additional colour and heighten emphasis. He also coaxed delicate and hushed playing from the strings, not least in the Scherzo. This was like watching a cloud of icing sugar being gently sieved onto the sponge below. No hints of hysteria or neurosis anywhere either, giving succour to those who regard the symphonic argument as paramount. 

However, neatness and precision alone do not a riveting performance make. This was already apparent in the overture to Bernstein’s Candide, which despite de Souza’s ear for sonorities had little of the necessary fizzing energy. Nor did George Walker’s Variations for Orchestra appear to be a work close to his heart. The piece is misnamed: it consists of eight fragments prefaced by a brief introduction but without any obvious thematic connections, linked only by a post-Bergian brooding intensity, with little pulses of animation from the strings and sour commentaries from woodwind and brass.

In the second subject of Tchaikovsky’s opening movement it felt as though all inner life had been sucked out of the woodwind. De Souza’s predilection for exaggerated ritardandos and pianissimos had a slightly wearying effect, like driving with the hand-brake still engaged. By the time he reached the Andantino I was beginning to wonder whether Tchaikovsky might already have consumed some of the cholera-infected water that finally did for him.

Johan Dalene and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The evening undoubtedly belonged to the young Swedish violinist Johan Dalene, Barber’s Violin Concerto fitting him like a glove. The piece had a curious genesis and ended up with the composer calling it his “Concerto da Sapone”, an allusion to the soap baron who initially commissioned it. Be that as it may, this tale of suds and sensibility is all about two movements cast in a richly lyrical vein contrasted with a rapid-fire toccata of a Finale. 

Dalene’s superb intonation, honeyed tone and seamless phrasing were apparent from the start, which felt like eavesdropping on a private conversation between soloist and orchestra, the elegance of the discourse underlined by the refinement of the playing. His capacity to sustain an absorbing narrative line, taking the listener through to the pastoral idyll of the slow movement, was one of the remarkable features of Dalene’s reading. It stressed the thaumaturgy of the piece: languid and languorous yielding to subtle inflections of fervent spirit. Here, I was especially struck by the moments of half-remembered heartache, the flickering of new passion and awakening of fresh energy, the distant horizons drawing tantalisingly close as seen through a glass prism. Dalene’s Ysaÿe encore merely confirmed Gramophone’s judgement some years back that he is indeed “One-to-Watch”.