Great bells hidden away up in the gallery of the Royal Albert Hall added a deafening clamour to the closing pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 in G minor, “The Year 1905”  last night, tolling their warning that tyrants – whether they be Tsars or Communist dictators – can never escape the judgment of history.

John Storgårds © Heikki Tuuli
John Storgårds
© Heikki Tuuli

Their clanging tumult brought to an end the third Prom this season from the BBC Philharmonic, an orchestra newly-energised by the appointment of Omer Meir Wellber as its chief conductor. In his debut in the opening week of the season he drove his new players through a challenging programme of Mozart, Paul Ben-Haim, Schoenberg and Schumann, and a few days later he turned them into a quasi period-instrument orchestra as they accompanied the Proms Youth Choir in an impressive and innovative interpretation of Haydn’s Creation, but last night he stood aside, to give the platform to the orchestra’s chief guest conductor, John Storgårds.

To leaven a programme book-ended by two Russian masterpieces which brood on darkness and death, Stogårds chose to give the world premiere of a commission devoted entirely to sunlight and new life, Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations, a piece inspired both by the Arctic Circle summer and her new son, born she says “when the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist”. Tarkiainen, aged 33, is from Finnish Lapland and has recently moved to a remote village 200 miles inside the Artic Circle, so she writes from first-hand experience of living with endless light.

Her hugely ambitious score teems with sparkling percussion, while woodwind and strings scurry up and down extended scales, cascades of notes falling over one another as she paints in music the infinitely varying hues of the Arctic summer sky. Bird calls and snatches of melody emerge. All is calm and eerily beautiful on this tonal seascape but underneath there is a relentless forward motion, driving us towards the sun’s zenith, heralded by glissandi trombones and culminating in a shattering climax. Then, a big surprise. As the sun’s power begins to fade and the autumnal shades appear, a startlingly conventional passage on divided strings makes an appearance, almost as if Grieg had picked up the score and quickly added his thoughts before the music finally drifts away into darkness.

This fine and richly satisfying piece made a perfect partner to the opening item, Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, which, like Midnight Sun Variations, is in a single, restless movement that surges ever onward towards inevitable darkness. Rachmaninov was inspired by a mysterious painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin showing a hooded figure guiding a boat with a coffin towards a forbiddingly bleak and inhospitable island. Storgård’s meticulous control of the lengthy crescendo as the boat creeps towards the island was masterly, the strings surging quietly through a richly sonorous, brooding, apparently bottomless sea.

Then, after all this impressively calm introspection, came the storm, Shostakovich’s frighteningly direct Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905, written in 1956 apparently as a tribute to those who fell in the failed Russian uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, but, as in all Shostakovich, much more nuanced. Throughout, he uses revolutionary songs of the period as thematic material for the orchestra, songs of defiance against tyranny, but heard in the context of 1956, when the Soviets had just crushed the Hungarian Uprising, they take on an entirely new meaning.

After the unbearably tense calm of the opening, setting the scene as the revolutionaries quietly converge on the Tsar’s Winter Palace, the BBC Phil seemed almost relieved to unleash the furious violence pent up in the score, timpani and bass drum thumping, snare drum rattling, brass roaring and strings digging in bayonet-like with their bows. We were left devastated by the shock of the aftermath, and moved by the lament of a solo cor anglais (beautifully played by Gillian Callow) before the violence was once again recalled, but this time with Shostakovich’s terrible warning to all tyrants ringing down on us from above: history will not forget.

The BBC Phil are back in violent mode tonight when they tackle Malcolm Arnold's Peterloo (Prom 23). They'll be exhausted.

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