The BBC Philharmonic’s latest Saturday evening concert at Bridgewater Hall began with a superb performance of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, also known as Four Legends from the Kalevala. The Suite predates the first of Sibelius’ numbered symphonies but has a symphonic structure, which means that even though the four connected tone-poems are often played separately, they work especially well as a whole. Lemminkäinen is a mythical hero from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem which was compiled from oral sources by Elias Lönnrot only in 1835. The music depicts four episodes from the story of the hero which can be interpreted as one of death and rebirth or the cycle of the changing seasons.

Garrick Ohlsson, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC Philharmonic

In the first movement, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, the orchestra’s Chief Conductor John Storgårds introduced us to our hero and demonstrated his skill at musical storytelling. He ensured that the subtleties of Sibelius’ orchestration shone through, so that the burbling of woodwind here or a blare of brass there could alter the mood and illuminate a brief episode of the story. The build-up and release of tension was a feature of the whole work and was particularly gripping in this movement. The second legend was the famous portrayal of the black Swan of Tuonela swimming on the river that divides the realm of the dead from the world of the living. It is often played separately but is even more powerful when coming between the more dramatic first and third movements. Gillian Callow gave a beautiful account of the cor anglais solo representing the swan, the calm, mysterious heart of the work. The narrative resumed in Lemminkäinen in Tuonela with the death of the hero. The whispering strings relating to the search by Lemminkäinen’s mother for her son were chilling. Lemminkäinen’s Return was even more dramatic, culminating in the rhythmic drive of his triumphal ride home after being magically reassembled by his mother. Storgårds has built up a high reputation of his performances of Sibelius with this orchestra, including a highly regarded cycle of the symphonies. With this evening’s performance we could see why.

John Storgårds
© BBC Philharmonic

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no 3 in D minor has the reputation of being one of the most technically difficult in the repertoire, as well as one of the longest. Garrick Ohlsson is up to all the challenges Rachmaninov can present and made the concerto much more than the showy, dreamy piece that we sometimes hear. He avoided any excessive sentimentality in his interpretation; his reserved approach allowed the music to speak for itself, and as a result it was all the more expressive. He enabled us to focus on both the overall effect of the music and his dazzling virtuosity. Ohlsson was stunning in the cadenzas and the many other opportunities he had to impress. The torrents of notes seemed integral to the drive of the music, whether in the romantic second movement or the vigorous finale.

The orchestra gave its subtle contribution in the places where Rachmaninov allowed it some prominence (the very opening of the concerto, for example, or in some of the variations in the slow movement), and combined nicely with the soloist when the two were equal partners. The spotlight, however, was very much on Ohlsson. To conclude, he treated the enthusiastic audience to a beautiful, sensitive performance of Chopin’s Nocturne no.2 in E flat major, Op.9 no.2 as an encore.