A belated touch of demonic fire was a welcome ingredient to last night's Prom. Prokofiev's Third Symphony, based on themes from his opera The Fiery Angel, received a reading which, if not quite scorching, certainly raised the temperature of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert after a tepid first half. Alexander Vedernikov, Music Director of The Bolshoi Theatre from 2001 to 2009, is probably one of the few conductors (Valery Gergiev being another) who have both opera and symphony in their repertoire and it showed in a compelling interpretation.

Alexander Vedernikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Vedernikov
© Marco Borggreve

Possessed nuns aren't your normal stock-in-trade operatic characters. Meyerbeer's “Ballet of the nuns” in Robert le diable sees them rise from the grave, dancing wildly like bacchantes. In Penderecki's 1972 The Devils of Loudun, nuns believe they are possessed by the devil. In between these two came Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, where the heroine, Renata, is caught by satanic forces. She joins a convent but in Act 5, surrounded by a breakout of mass hysteria among the nuns, Renata is condemned by the Inquisitor to be burned at the stake as a witch. Narrowly failing to secure a staging after Bruno Walter was scared off by the subject matter, Prokofiev, rather than recycle the music into a suite, wove themes from the opera into his Third Symphony. Although based on The Fiery Angel's score – even its orchestration – the Third is not programmatic, providing the essence of the opera without relating its narrative.

Prokofiev's first movement is the most traditionally symphonic and Vedernikov launched into the obsessive ostinato of the possessed opening with admirable precision and controlled aggression. Strings introduced the melody recalling Renata's visions of a flaming angel who visited her as a child. Glassy beauty touched the Andante's melancholy flute theme, troubled by bass clarinet undercurrents. The agitated Scherzo caught the hysterical atmosphere, writhing strings knotted in a slither of glissandos, before shrieking piccolo and growling bassoon made their mark in the frenzied finale, topped with terrifying tolls on both tubular and upturned church bells. As a symphony, Prokofiev's Third doesn't hang together particularly tightly, but it will rarely get as convincing a performance as this, even if someone like Gergiev revels more in its demonic fantasy.

A whiff of sulphur would have been welcome in a disappointing first half. Tchaikovsky's Hamlet Fantasy Overture, low on doom, was only dutifully performed, apart from a shapely oboe solo from Emily Pailthorpe, followed by curiously low-key Rachmaninov. In the 19th century, legend had it that violinist Niccolò Paganini gained his dazzling technique having sold his soul to the devil. Rachmaninov's Rhapsody, based on Paganini's diabolically difficult A minor Caprice, needs a devil-may-care abandon which it didn't really receive in Stephen Hough's nuanced account, all rippling plumes and tasteful curlicues. He wasn't helped by a brittle piano sound and a somnolent accompaniment, the BBCSO strings lacking that extra ounce of fat. It was all a bit fussy – a very dapper devil where even Rachmaninov's favourite Dies irae chimes in the piano and harp lacked menace. Bells tolled in Hough's encore, echoing the opening chords of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto before veering off into a whimsical arrangement of Moscow Nights

***11