With the sounds of a monumental Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony still ringing in the ears of the BBC Philharmonic from Sunday evening, this concert was going to be a tough act to follow. Continuing with a similar theme, the BBC Philharmonic, with its Principal Guest Conductor Ben Gernon, started with Malcolm Arnold’s overture Peterloo. It depicts the tragic events of 1819, in Manchester — the orchestra’s home – of a mass gathering campaigning for suffrage, in which eighteen people were killed and hundreds injured. This programmatic overture opens with a broad Elgarian melody, which was played lusciously by the strings. A chorale for woodwind follows before the opening theme returns. The intentionally overpowering snare drums reverberated around the hall aiding the depiction of the dark forbidding events. Gernon brought the orchestra up to the same dynamic level as the snares. The dissonance contained within was reminiscent of that Shostakovich 11, along with the chiming pealing bells, compounding the coincidences. Gernon intensified the emotionally stirring moments by measuring the ascent to the climaxes and pacing the slower, softer moments.

Ben Gernon © Petr Kadlec
Ben Gernon
© Petr Kadlec

Finding something unique to say in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini when there are so many seasoned interpreters of the work performing the piece regularly certainly isn’t easy. Alexander Gavrylyuk had withdrawn from this concert, replaced by Proms debutant Juan Pérez Floristán, who almost skipped with youthful glee to the platform. Floristán showed his technical prowess with exceptionally dexterous, accurate and precise passage-work, clean articulation and ability to voice chords. Unfortunately this was a performance that was all about technical skills rather than the emotions within. Subtle changes were lacking, and whilst the scherzos, melancholic and bombastic moments were all evident, the contrasting pianistic colours and effective rubato were missing. On reaching the 18th variation, Gernon phrased the orchestra with tenderness, but Floristán did not imitate. After this show of technique, an encore, the Danza del gaucho matrero by Ginastera, which Floristán dedicated to his mother. This was more emotionally and musically sensitive and fitted Floristán's fingers like a glove. 

In many ways, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake revolutionised Russian ballet music. Continuing the Proms theme of the season of ‘Henry Wood Novelties’, Wood's 1901 selection created a suite of approximately one hour. Taking the music out of its theatrical context is perhaps risky, but entrusted into Gernon’s hands something extraordinary happened; it was obvious the BBC Philharmonic (despite a few minor personnel changes) had kept something in reserve for this hugely expressive performance.

It takes someone with an intimate and authoritative knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and tone poems to make this suite from Swan Lake work as musically convincingly as this. Gernon ensured that the score's symphonic qualities – with the way in which themes are used – influenced the musicality with an absolute understated of the narrative. This performance didn’t require lavish sets, costumes or dancers; Gernon created the entire story with just the music and the talents of the orchestra.

Wood's suite takes music from each of the four acts in chronological order. The Act 1 Scène brimmed with poignancy, initially from the woodwind and then echoed by the strings. Using the full complement of symphonic strings of 60 players, made such a difference to the sonorities, elevating the orchestral sound. The Waltz was full in interest, in which Gernon shaped the dynamics to create musical tension and was rewarded with fervent release. The Act 2 extracts allowed individual musicians to have their moment, effectively taking the roles of a prima ballerina: Jennifer Gallow’s lachrymose oboe melody was exquisite; Clifford Lantaff’s harp solo opening the Pas d’action was celestial, with lovingly and beguiling melodies played by both Gjorgi Dimcevski (violin) and Peter Dixon (cello). In the Dance of the Swans, Gernon skilfully managed to encapsulate all the intricacies (and attitude) of youth in a characterful and positivity charming way.

The national dances from Act 3 followed. The energy and excitement of the ball was fully depicted before a regal and authoritative Czardas, a characterful Dance espagnole, a restrained Danse napolitaine and a bold Mazurka. The final two extracts from Act 4 gave strong depictions of panic, anguish and turmoil as Odette’s fate seemed certain. The waves of emotion were intoxicating as Gernon’s spell swept us away on the crests of romantic passion in this whistle-stop tour of Swan Lake.

****1