Prom 47 was the fifth of six concerts to include music by Sibelius, and this time it was the turn of symphonic poem Tapiola to represent the mighty Finn, part of an evening that showcased two other Nordic composers, Jón Leifs and Anders Hillborg. From the off the BBC Symphony orchestra were magnificently responsive to their chief conductor Sakari Oramo (with trademark red cummerbund and bow tie) whose clear and inspirational direction ensured that Sibelius’ “heart-of-darkness” soundscape was brilliantly illuminated. Oramo squeezed every ounce of expressive detail from the work’s motivic sound bites thereby underlining its rigorously conceived symphonic logic – it is, after all, regarded by some as a drastically compressed symphony. Pacing, blend and ensemble were superbly controlled in a performance that demonstrated a superb partnership between orchestra and conductor, recalling their recent Barbican performance in May. Always with an acute ear for dynamics, Oramo drew pin-drop pianissimos from the strings and in the closing bars their polished tone glowed so vividly as to bring to mind Vaughan Williams observation (and I paraphrase) “only he could make B major sound completely fresh”.
If British critics once complained that Tapiola possessed more manner than substance (it received a lukewarm reception at its 1928 proms première) this carp might also be levelled at Jón Leifs’ three-movement Organ Concerto, here given its first Proms performance. With echoes of the seismic blockbuster Hekla which first introduced this Icelandic composer to the Proms in 2009, the concerto’s decibel level promised to raise the roof, and indeed its opening bars were as riotous as you can get in its “call to arms” declaration. Its event-packed Passacaglia set in motion 30 variations which included some gratifying and eloquently rendered solo contributions from woodwind and brass. But, despite a brilliantly impressive soloist in Stephen Farr, Oramo’s obvious passion and the score’s instrumental clangour (not least a busy timpanist and three percussionists, including a Mahler hammer) I couldn’t help thinking that the overall impact of its 20 minute span was not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
The buzz of interest surrounding its conclusion nearly obscured the funereal opening to Stephen Farr’s encore – an arrangement of a Michelangelo Sonnet by the Icelandic Hafliði Hallgrímsson, played as a personal tribute to the recently deceased organist John Scott.
After the interval the Nordic connection settled on the contemporary Swedish composer Anders Hillborg whose Beast Sampler received its UK première. Hillborg had envisaged the orchestra as a “sound animal” (that Oramo likened to “Godzilla gone mad”) and which amply demonstrated considerable resourcefulness in his use of special effects; its string sonorities at one point seemingly recreating an aviary. It also demonstrated, in this instance, that the absence of melody (percussion and timpani too) is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment.
The communication of enjoyment was much in evidence from Oramo in his direction of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major, that completed the programme. This was a stylish account marked, in the first movement, by well-judged tempi, scrupulous attention to detail in matters of phrasing and articulation and yet not so fussy that the music remained earth-bound. The Allegretto (nothing sluggish here) continued this focus and, by the time we reached the Scherzo, Oramo had caught the essence of Beethoven’s joy and from there until the end (with an attacca into the finale) his enthusiasm and the players commitment was inescapable. In a work that so trumpets life this performance was utterly compelling.
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