Neither Sakari Oramo nor his BBC Symphony Orchestra are household names when it comes to Bruckner. And even if conducting Sibelius, as Oramo has done superbly with the BBCSO last season, may be a proxy to the quality of Bruckner conducting given the penchant for the elemental and mysterious both composers share, the task was not made easy by Oramo’s choice to conduct the B flat major Fifth Symphony, perhaps the most Brucknerian of them all. To what qualities can one ascribe such status to a work that often evades the typical Brucknerian symphonic equation? Formally, the Fifth is unique among Bruckner’s output in its distinct contrapuntal textures and the presence of slow introductions in the outer movements. Yet under its technical peculiarities is an immaculate reserve of the quintessential Bruckner, the juxtaposition of the sacred and secular, and the stable pulse sewn toward an inevitable conclusion of spiritual assuredness.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO
© BBC | Mark Allan

From the pizzicato-grounded beginning of Adagio-Allegro, precision and alertness, hallmarks of an Oramo production were evident. There were no unnecessary theatrics, as Oramo carved the moments of silence leading to their first theme, and when it arrived, the integrity and clarity of the tuttis suggested a portentous occasion. If Oramo had drilled the orchestra to maintain an arresting level of togetherness, especially impressive in the thinly delineated vibratos, there was nothing rigid in expression. In the Adagio, where the sweeping second theme and the climax are often broadened to exploit qualities of the profound, such possibilities were overlooked under Oramo’s sober baton. Still, the movement, being played under 16 minutes, gave a sense that Oramo was not to dwell on things just yet.

The back-heavy nature of the Fifth Symphony requires conductors to shape a narrative that accommodates both continuity and tension. Having observed a thrilling Scherzo that refused to shy away from the blithe and rustic spirits of the Ländler, the introduction of the Finale was brisk. Given that this introduction is identical to the contemplative first movement introduction, the newfound pace conjured both curiosity and familiar solemnity. The surprising burst of rubato-wriggled speed of the third thematic group unison was emblematic of Oramo’s intentions of the movement, as the following double fugue was procured with kinetic thrust and clarity. If the cataclysmic coda connotes religious awe in its lofty chorales, Oramo’s take was that of hot-blooded symphonic drama. In the coda’s swift intensity, the conviction forged by Oramo was both hair-raising and refreshing, ridding any notion of indulgence.

Benjamin Grosvenor, Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO
© BBC | Mark Allan

The performance was preceded by Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major, played by the Benjamin Grosvenor. Oramo appeared to acknowledge recent HIP trends by adopting a hard-stick timpani, but the charming performance was ultimately lyrical and more 20th-century than 18th. The Royal Albert Hall is rarely kind to soloists and thus Grosvenor’s clarity of tone was a thing to admire, although his tendency for elegance over flair kept the exuberant Allegro vivace assai firm on the ground.