The beginning of Prom 23 was utterly surreal. I found myself confronted by sounds I had never heard before in a concert hall. The music of Jörg Widmann is certainly not widely known, and the fact that his composition Armonica was receiving its UK première only at this Prom some ten years after its composition date tells its own story.

Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica) © Chris Christodoulou
Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica)
© Chris Christodoulou

Written for orchestra and glass harmonica and accordion soloists, the work is more a dreamlike journey through a fantastical soundworld than a composition with recognisable themes and motifs. Familiar instruments were played in such a way that I often found it difficult to discern what was playing. Added to that the ethereal and often vocal nature of the sound of the glass harmonica and the sweet but distinctive sound of the accordion, this was a thoroughly engaging opening to the concert with soloists and orchestra completely entering into the magic of the piece.  

Whatever trance-like state the audience may have been in was soon dispelled by the entrance of Thomas Zehetmair and the much more familiar Schumann Violin Concerto. However, it seemed as though it took the BBC Philharmonic and conductor John Storgårds a while to break free of the other-wordliness created with the previous composition. The first movement of Schumann's concerto lacked the angst and drama it requires. Composed in 1853, this was Schumann's final orchestra work and was written at a turbulent time in his life, yet the orchestral playing was reserved and the strings were unable to sing over the top of the brass at times.

For his part, Zehetmair played with an impressive virtuosity and showed great technical precision. The highlight was his playing in the second movement, to which he brought a luscious warmth, his tone contrasting beautifully with the more impassioned sound he produced before. The orchestra responded to this with sensitivity. Again, Zehetmair changed character for the final movement, finding a brighter, more joyful tone, with the orchestra reacting in a more lively manner than the first movement, imbuing the concerto's conclusion with an appropriate dance-like dialogue with the soloist.

If the first half had seen a reasonably subdued performance from the orchestra overall, the second half of the concert could not have been more different as though we were listening to another set of performers. Storgårds was much more energised and inspired and the orchestra duly responded. This was clearly more familiar ground, the orchestra and conductor having together already recorded the complete symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen. The Prelude to Sibelius' The Tempest served as a curtain raiser to the meaty Symphony no. 5 by Nielsen. Whatever drama may have been lacking in the first half was now present in abundance. Here, the giddy swirls whipped the orchestra into a frenzy, its ebb and flow alternating with power and turbulence. This was perfect preparation for what was to follow.

John Storgårds with the BBC Philharmonic © Chris Christodoulou
John Storgårds with the BBC Philharmonic
© Chris Christodoulou

Nielsen's compositions deserve to be more mainstream than they are. Unconventionally written in two movement, the Fifth Symphony is Nielsen's attempt at juxtaposing various contrasting themes including those of good and evil, chaos and order, instability and balance, rhythmic propulsion and inactivity, and harmonic instability versus stability. The work opens with uncertainty, with instrumental lines oscillating on a minor third. The BBC Philharmonic created an effective sense of uncertainty and unease with the ethereal sound of the string and woodwind sections. This is brutally interrupted by a loud side drum, which appears to be fighting against the rest of the orchestra.

The battle was impressively managed by conductor and orchestra. The symphony contains a large role for the percussion who performed with great precision throughout. Equally impressive was the way in which the orchestra responded to this, successfully competing with the huge sound created by the percussion. The string section sailed on top of the full orchestra producing a heroic sound, and the brass sound too filled the hall with great power and resonance. Conductor John Storgårds was visibly inspired throughout, successfully eliciting an utterly thrilling sound from the BBC Philharmonic. The performance of this symphony was by far the highlight of the evening, showing both conductor and orchestra at their thrilling best.