The Lapland Chamber Orchestra debuted at the Proms with a brilliant performance ranging from unusual classical pieces such as Sibelius’s intimate and tender Rakastava to disturbing contemporary works by Birtwistle and Davies. After last Saturday’s inaugural performance by the Greek orchestra Armonia Atenea, this second Proms Saturday Matinée hosted the Finnish Lapland Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

The first piece performed was the Symphony for Strings in B minor (1773) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (the “Hamburg” Bach), son of the better known Joahnn Sebastian. This was the first time this piece had been performed at the Proms, in celebration of the composer's 300th anniversary. The eight-minute symphony is an outstanding miniature masterpiece, expressing a wide range of emotions, giving strong voice to sentimental images and projecting Bach to a very modern sensibility. The piece is an example of “empfindsamer”, a German term that defines Bach’s style as “sensitive”, “affective”. In contrast to his near contemporaries, Haydn and Mozart, C.P.E. Bach was a pioneering composer who experimented with bold solutions. Though modelled on the Baroque fast-slow-fast schema, the frequent key changes and violin interruptions throughout the Symphony for Strings in B minor (Fifth Symphony) reveal some of the more innovative elements of his compositional writing. Especially daring were the violin imperfections at the very beginning of the first movement, which introduced an energetic and passionate performance by the Lapland Orchestra.

Bach’s symphony was followed by the contemporary Endless Parade (1986-87). Harrison Birtwistle introduced his music, describing the process of composing Parade as “cubist”. Similarly to Picasso’s Cubist masterpieces, Birtwistle’s piece is a result of restructured fragments of six unrelated pieces of music. The outcome is a series of repetitions with a dimension of discontinuity. The sounds that most stood out were the trumpet, magnificently played by Håkan Hardenberger, and the unsettling sound of the xylophone. Maestro Storgårds conducted this challenging piece with great skill, co-ordinating each musician’s contribution into a fluent and passionate tune. The Parade flows by alternating moments of dilation and distension like a violent river, building up to sudden and violent climaxes amongst the frantic, quick rhythms. The orchestra’s effortless transition from a classical to contemporary repertoire was impressive.

The third piece of the matinee was a vivid performance of the more cheerful Pastorale d’été by Arthur Honegger. This pastoral was composed during a summer holiday on the Alps. The strings, woodwinds and horn worked together to depict the peaceful sensation of a summer idyll. The whole orchestra was vibrating with sentiment at the hands of Storgårds’s light yet impassioned gesture.

Sir Maxwell Davies’ Sinfonia (1962) followed. Though quite intense it was not particularly innovative, with striking interruptions, dissonances and sudden turns of harmony. The orchestra must be commended however on the execution of this piece, confirming again the ease with which they convincingly perform a wide range of musical genres.

The final piece was met with much enthusiasm from the audience. Another first-timer at the Proms was the performance of Jean Sibelius’s Rakastava, meaning “The Lover”. His work of three movements is a tender elegy for love and death. It is an intimate and delicate suite for strings, triangle and timpani. Sorrow is communicated via the timps, which punctuate the tranquillity before culminating in a cathartic finale.

Storgårds led the Finnish orchestra in absolute harmony. This was not merely a mechanical delivery of the score, but a magnificent rendition of the piece where each musician contributed passionately – a terrific Nordic conclusion of a masterpiece that has been inexplicably neglected.