In what was only his second Prom as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo led this fine orchestra on a journey through two of the best-known pieces of the 20th century.

Lisa Batiashvili © Chris Christodoulou
Lisa Batiashvili
© Chris Christodoulou

However, the first piece to be played was the BBC-commissioned work by Param Vir, Cave of Luminous Mind. Drawing upon the composer’s Buddhist studies, this piece is striking for its dissonant harmonies and glissando within the strings. The timbre that is so carefully built up throughout the first movement is punctuated by the wind and brass sections. The extensive percussion section was particularly impressive: whilst many of the instruments used were those usually reserved for school concert bands, Vir’s extensive orchestration really aided the programmatic qualities of the piece. An unusual piece, but one that was played expertly by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and it certainly kicked the Prom into life.

Following on from the Vir piece was Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, played by Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili. The two pieces worked well together, and jointly formed a first half that was as close to perfect as possible. Oramo made his debut as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the first night of the Proms. That night was a great performance, but the way in which he manipulated the orchestra so subtly throughout this Prom was yet more impressive. This was most obvious in the Sibelius, where sensitivity is paramount, even when the soloist’s tone was so clear.

Batiashvili has made this particular concerto her own, having recorded the piece in 2008, and has performed it extensively ever since she first broke onto the scene in 1995. Her debut performance of the work was with Sakari Oramo, and since then, that relationship has been rekindled many times, culminating in their performance at this particular Prom. Every component of this highly complex concerto seemed to gel. Batisashvili somehow managed to find the perfect balance between the precision and technique displayed on her recordings, and the panache necessary to convey the solo part to the live audience. The encore, Lale by Batiashvili’s fellow Georgian Sulkhan Tsintsadze, was a shorter, lighter number, although once again, it was played to the highest of standards. At the interval, there was a tangible craving amongst the audience for more music.

The second half mirrored the first in many ways, also opening with a slightly understated, unorthodox orchestral piece before a famous, more exuberant counterpart. The second half started with the Celtic Symphony, written by Bantock in 1940 for strings and six harps. A strong start to the piece was promising but it never developed in the same way that the other works did. Whether this was a question of interpretation or the composition itself – for me, this was the weakest part of the programme. The orchestral layout was shifted, so that the cellos sat where the second violins normally sit – and perhaps the piece's high points were the cello solos, played by Susan Monks.

The music of Edward Elgar, recognised by Richard Strauss as the first “English composer who has something to say”, has always been associated with the Proms. His Enigma Variations is one of his best known works. Not only do the variations chart Elgar’s rise to prominence as a composer, but are shrouded in mystery that is part of their appeal. The work’s popularity and enduring appeal means that it deserves to be pulled off with the aplomb of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Oramo’s sensitivity was once again key here, but it was in this grand finale that the audience finally got to see the orchestra’s full versatility. The sense of freedom that became apparent in some of the more indulgent variations was almost playful. The more abrasive and forceful variations consequently seemed even more powerful; these seemed to take hold of the orchestra and conductor, making for a fittingly engaging performance. With each return of the wind, brass and percussion sections there was a renewed energy within the orchestra, and even if the much-celebrated Nimrod variation was a little bit too soupy, one couldn’t have wished for a better ending to this magnificent evening of music.