Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain, in its once familiar version arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov, used to be a regular curtain-raiser and it was good to be reminded why. In just over ten minutes it unfolds a ghoulish scenario of supernatural creatures and their satanic revels, without ever threatening to frighten the children. Sakari Oramo, whose podium style is often so balletic, reminded us that revels, satanic or otherwise, involve dancing, and the BBC Symphony responded with an abundance of rhythmic verve, the wind and brass graphic in depicting the shrieks and howls of the possessed, as painted in Rimsky’s technicolor instrumentation. Who would have thought celebrating a Black Mass could be quite such fun?

Nora Fischer and the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Nora Fischer and the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Louis Andriessen is 80 this year, but still well able to contribute some fun to a concert with a new work. His The Only One, a BBC co-commission with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and NTR ZaterdagMatinee, was here being given its UK premiere. Its two points of origin were a collection by the Flemish poet Delphine Lecompte, poems described by the composer as “witty, intelligent, experimental, and sometimes scabrous”, and the skill of Nora Fischer, a young singer whose work ranges from Monteverdi to the modern, and whose “versatility has strongly influenced the musical language of the piece”. Fischer, of course, was the soloist and we could hear something at least of what the composer heard, in her clear, bell-like voice and diction (the poems were in an English translation). She used a microphone, but the amplification did not seem out of proportion with the orchestral part. The mic though, and the musical style, suggested the American “great tradition of song-writing” that Andriessen’s note referenced, as did some of Fischer’s vocal mannerisms. She moved around the orchestra between songs and changed her attire, while some intriguing orchestral interludes linked the vocal items. There was nothing here to frighten the children either, and it was greeted by the Prommers more with respect than enthusiasm. But it passed my simplistic test of any new work, in that I would be happy to hear it again. What might a different singer make of a piece so tailored to one artist?

Another modern master, Judith Weir, wrote Forest in 1995, early in her post as Composer-in-Association to the CBSO, but this was its first performance at a Prom. (One has to admire the BBCSO, offering two quite intricate works new to them, and in the same programme.) Forests are dark and threatening places in fairy tales, but once again the children were safe in Weir’s mainly tonal musical world. Here was woodland mystery, perhaps even romance, and certainly enchantment, in less than twelve minutes. The magical opening motif is given to four solo violas and a cello, and it unfurls organically, generating elaborations often coloured by lower winds, two marimbas, and almost omnipresent horn tone, a reference maybe to the Waldhorn of German Romantic music. Even on a first hearing, this splendid piece has echoes of Sibelius’s nature music, as well as his organic processes. Both the work, and then the composer herself, were greeted with many an appreciative cheer.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Only one composer could follow that: the great Finn himself. Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony also has its natural origins. There is the famous tale of the flight of sixteen swans whose splendour the composer recalled in the famous swaying motif of the last movement. But Sibelius also referred in a journal note to the way that tributaries coalesce into a great river. Whether you prefer the avian or the fluvial metaphor, the sense of growth of a mighty structure from small, self-renewing elements, is palpable and satisfying even without any recourse to the score or analysis. At least it is if the performers know the work as well as the

BBC Symphony Orchestra does, especially when led by Oramo, one of the great masters of this score. The Brits, and especially Prom audiences, have always loved this composer. Rattle in this regard once called the UK ‘East Finland’, and London in recent times has had fine performances from Sir Simon, Sir Colin Davis, Osmo Vanska and others. But few surpassed that given by this orchestra and conductor two seasons ago. If tonight’s Fifth was not quite in the class of the Fifth in that cycle, it came pretty close. The antiphony between horns and trumpets sounded especially poetic, reverberating across the huge space of the Royal Albert Hall. The very peak of the finale was perhaps not quite as sublimely trumpet-capped as before, at least not from seat H30 in the Stalls – although the broadcast might have been just fine. I shall be checking that out – not least to hear the two Prom premieres once again.

****1