Prom 38 was one of those concerts where, for better or for worse, the first passage gives you a good idea of how the rest of the evening is going to turn out. For better, because the instrumental timbre was quite wonderful from many sections of the BBC Philharmonic, starting with the magnificent brass fanfare that opens Sibelius’ Finlandia, and moving on to bright woodwind and a sumptuous dark tone at the entry of the double basses. For worse, because the performance, conducted by John Storgårds, was marred by timing errors: ensemble playing was tight within sections, but when a new set of instruments came in, I repeatedly lost confidence that entries would be at the precise time intended.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

This was a well crafted programme, opening with the crowd pleasing, easily accessible Finlandia, closing with the same orchestral palette but a far grander scale in Sibelius’ second symphony, these serving to frame two works that were somewhat in a Sibelian mould, but each with its own distinctive musical vocabulary.

In his Symphony no. 5, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has acknowledged a debt to Sibelius, and there’s certainly a common use of dark colours and a particular sweeping quality of the phrasing. But Maxwell Davies uses a substantially wider sonic palette, most notably with the help of a greatly expanded percussion section (five players plus timpanist). There are also more effects, with frequent use of glissandi and high register string playing with harmonics, as well as a memorable repeated bird call. In places, the music has a very filmic quality, with frequent shifts in tempo and orchestration. The piece was well served by the BBC Philharmonic’s ability to produce beautiful timbre: I particularly noted a passage where pianissimo strings give way to bassoons. The symphony’s ending is long, dreamy and evanescent, a true thing of beauty.

The programme notes suggest that in spite of being only in one movement, this symphony is a highly structured composition with clearly delineated sections and an underlying mathematical logic to its pitch sequences. This may be so, but this was my first hearing of the symphony and I was unable to grasp what structure there was. I also found myself at odds with the programme notes for the next piece: Frank Bridge’s cello concerto Oratorio, which was described as being a sometimes abrasive, anguished response to the devastations of the First World War. That’s not the way I heard it: for me, it was far more of an elegiac search for beauty in the wreckage.

The gentle opening of the work made a good segue from the moriendo ending of the Maxwell Davies, starting with a long cello line played hauntingly by Leonard Elschenbroich, albeit with the vibrato laid on a shade too thick. Elschenbroich’s qualities as a soloist were also highlighted towards the end of the work in an imposing cadenza. Once again, the individual orchestral sounds were quite beautiful – a haunting last post like trumpet here, a delicate fusion of harp horn and high strings there – with another long and gentle passage to end (although, in this case, thickening out at the very end of the work).

After the interval, the pattern was repeated with Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major. Individual playing delighted, tempos seemed fine, but it was difficult to pick an overall structure to the work. In contrast to the Maxwell Davies and the Bridge, this is a work that I know well; in a great performance, there is a flow and dramatic arc to the music which keeps you engaged throughout. Here, Storgårds' dynamics were insufficiently well defined to create the dramatic arc, which was also damaged by continual slight lack of confidence in the timing of entries: notes weren’t wildly off, just enough to take the edge of the performance. In sum, therefore, this was a performance with many fine components, but whose whole was rather less than the sum of its parts.

***11