Sir Andrew Davis’ visits to the BBC Philharmonic are always keenly anticipated, but it was especially pleasing to see a large audience turn out to see the 73-year-old conductor direct two large scale works from the less successful youths of latterly successful composers. His energetic direction extracted some riotous moments in Sibelius and Rachmaninov’s first efforts in their defining genres while Elgar’s Cockaigne overture made for a colourful romp of a curtain-raiser.

Sir Andrew Davis © Lucas Dawson
Sir Andrew Davis
© Lucas Dawson

The highlight of the night was Davis’ uncommonly warm and spacious account of Sibelius’ E minor symphony. The BBC Philharmonic’s Sibelius cycle with John Storgårds of a couple of years ago gave this symphony the biting iciness one usually expects of it, but it was the golden glow Davis extracted from the string section which was most striking about tonight’s performance. For a symphony of a mere 35 minutes, Davis’ reading had the air of a much grander being without ever seeming to dawdle. There was plenty of detail to be found in the translucent wind textures of the first movement and the Scherzo was thrillingly agitated, but the rich texture of the string section, built upwards from fulsome bass and cello sounds, defined the deeply moving passages of the slow movement.

The fourth movement, attacked with barely a pause to draw breath, was full of emotional intensity from the anguished cry of the first bars. After lamentation gave way to searing brass and ultimately a gloriously well balanced, resounding singing of the ‘big tune’, the inescapable bleakness of the last notes became all the more harrowing.

Rachmaninov began work on his lesser-known First Piano Concerto while a 17-year old at the Moscow Conservatory, but would later come to make aggressive revisions to the score. It owes a great deal to Grieg, not least in its suspiciously familiar opening runs of descending chords. Kathryn Stott was soloist, following her sparkling rendition of the Fourth with the same orchestra in their memorable 2015 piano concerto bonanza. 

To the onlooker, she approached tonight’s performance from a position of complete authority and confidence, launching into the opening notes while still seeming to be getting into position. Playing with her whole body as a neat compromise between unflinching stillness and showy excess, she managed to project out the key inner voices of the music even from the mid-range of the piano amid the full orchestral tumult. A certain lightness of touch gave clear definition to the most thunderous of outbursts without any compromise in intensity. The slow movement found some moments of striking beauty in a delicate piano–bassoon conversation and impossibly soft ending before the finale provided a dashing charge to its thrilling conclusion. George Gerswhin’s Embraceable You made for a superbly selected and delivered encore.

The biggest work by forces required was given upfront in Elgar’s scenes from London life, Cockaigne, the sort of literal picture-postcard a young Richard Strauss might have sent home. The swirling grandeur of the overture’s love theme and scrappy pomp of the marching band were led with great character by the large orchestra. With the addition of organ to the score’s five trumpets, five trombones and five horns (guest led with much style by Andrew Littlemore, on loan from Birmingham Royal Ballet), this was an affectionate and entertaining cab ride through the streets of the city.