Richard Dubugnon’s new Caprice for Orchestra no. 1 made a very lively and engaging start to this splendid Philharmonia concert. This twelve-minute piece used the orchestra in sections, winds, brass and strings all given idiomatic, demanding – and often fast – music to play, with the timpanist arbitrating their sectional disputes. The players certainly seemed to relish the challenge, and clearly benefited from having premiered the Caprice five days before in Zurich’s Tonhalle. The large audience gave the work a warm welcome, as they did the young composer when he appeared to take a bow. It is good news that this is the start of a series of short caprices from Dubugnon designed to launch concerts, and that he has a BBCSO première next February of a concerto for piano and celeste.

Arabella Steinbacher © Peter Rigaud
Arabella Steinbacher
© Peter Rigaud
The Brahms Violin Concerto begins with the greatest movement ever written for violin and orchestra (Elgar lovers and other protesters please go with this for now…) and needs much more than mere accompaniment. It needs a close musical collaboration, and that was what it received here. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s opening tutti was properly steady in tempo and mellifluous in tone, strings and horns especially warm and responsive. But there is plenty of storm and stress also in the orchestral part and that element too was given plenty of weight, but always proportionate. 

The soloist was on especially fine form, and responded superbly to the challenge laid down by the powerful orchestral contribution. Even by the very high standards we now expect of leading violinists of her generation, Arabella Steinbacher showed great command throughout, and her attack and double stopping were arresting without ever sacrificing tone quality. In the lyrical passages she deployed poetic phrasing, spot-on intonation and magical tone colour. A peerless performance, one of the best I have heard of this great work for many a year. There was considerable and understandable clamour for an encore, but after a 50-minute first half it was time to draw breath and turn one’s thoughts to Finland a hundred years ago, when Sibelius first offered the world his new symphony.

Sibelius’s 1919 final version of his Fifth Symphony has become one of his most often performed works – heard twice already in London in the composer’s anniversary year. Those fine performances, with Ashkenazy and Rattle in charge, and the one under Saraste in Lahti reviewed here in September, had much in common. In fact there seems to be a consensus going right back to Kajanus in the 1930s about how this work should go. Coming after its austere predecessor it returns to a more poetic, even heroic, manner, but it is not really seen as romantically expressive like the Second. Salonen sees it differently. Here was a Fifth played for all it is worth, heaven-storming and laden with as much pathos as the notes would bear. The Philharmonia played magnificently throughout. The transition in the 12/8 first movement when it switches to a dancing 3/4 after a stunning modulation from E flat to B major – the bit we all think of as the moment the sun bursts through the clouds – was a glorious moment, capped by celebrant trumpets and excitably loud timpani. 

The tempi courted extremes, with very slow build-ups that felt tense and inexorable, but there was no holding back when impetus was required. When the composer marks the end of his (mainly moderato) first movement Presto, and then più presto for the last two pages, this performance was surely what he hoped to hear – headlong, impulsive, but controlled – exciting because of very precise articulation from the strings even at Salonen’s precipitous tempo.

The following movements were in the same vein, yearning string phrases in the Andante harked back to a different tradition perhaps, as did Salonen’s big rallentando at the second entry of the finale’s ‘swan’ motif. What – Sibelius Five as a late romantic symphony? It can certainly take this treatment, as the citizens of Manchester well knew in the Barbirolli era. On disc it might prove controversial (as we might yet learn – it was being recorded), but live it was compelling – and compelled the audience to cheer the conductor until the orchestra ignored his signal for them to stand, and he had to take a podium bow himself. My neighbour (an elderly gentleman) did not join in the acclaim, but grumbled “the loudest cheer for the worst performance” - but then the Sibelius purists have had plenty to enjoy in 2015. And at least he had a brilliant new curtain-raiser and that superb Brahms concerto to recall as he made his way out into a foggy November night.