Following the departure of Juanjo Mena, the BBC Philharmonic finds itself without a Chief Conductor this season. John Storgårds and Ben Gernon share named Guest Conductor roles (as Chief and Principal respectively), and it was the former who began the season tonight, culminating in a titanic account of Sibelius' Second Symphony. The concert also saw the launch of the orchestra's Philharmonic Lab project, in which listeners can follow a real-time text commentary to the music on their smartphone, synchronised to the score.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

The evening opened with Ottorino Respighi's Fountains of Rome, one of those party pieces which gives an excuse to crack out two harps, organ, celesta and piano. With the hall dipped into atmospherically darker-than-usual low light, the early woodwind solos twinkled into view above shimmering violins. The pairing of oboe and principal cello solos was particularly magical here while, later on, harps, keyboards and 4-mallet glockenspiel sparkled as one, grouped together on the left side of the stage. The tuttis were a thrilling spectacle, with the organ and brass shaking the floor in Storgårds' quick three-in-a-bar pulse. 

Bringing something local to the party, Alban Gerhardt replaced the advertised Truls Mørk for Oldham-born William Walton's Cello Concerto of 1955-56. It's a taxing listen, at pains to escape any hint of a certain other English cello concerto, and wholly original in its complexities. Gerhardt must be credited for holding the large audience to such rapt attention, commanding control of the hall from the softly intoned opening with bass clarinet to the dark shadows of its last pages. In the outer movements he produced playing of highly focused, rich sound, flanking the fireworks of the central scherzo. His playing took on a furious intensity here, well supported with apparently easy sense of ensemble and textural clarity by the orchestra.

John Storgårds recorded all seven Sibelius symphonies with this orchestra in live broadcasts only five years ago, but since then, his feel for the natural ebb and flow and rawness in this music seems to have grown considerably. This second was darker than 2013, and the end all the more triumphant for it. It was also full of wonderfully individual touches, highlighting often-hidden lines here or there, or emphasising a momentary dissonance, but always staying just on the right side of being overly mannered.

The first movement flowed swiftly with a folksy lilt to its woodwind themes and occasional glimpses of brassy excitement. The second, taken very slowly, saw every pizzicato placed with utmost precision beneath the bleak bassoon solo. At this tempo the forte brass lines hung in the air for an eternity. After some fierce string attacks in the main body of the Scherzo, its second theme grew out of stirringly beautiful woodwind playing. This sense of yearning, one sensed, was only partially satisfied by the advent of the finale. Rather than stopping to admire the view here, Storgårds forged onwards. There was plenty of time spared to appreciate some of the finer details of the journey, but it was only in the last peroration of the big tune that any real sense of triumph was permitted. The last pages were hard-won, capping a perfectly proportioned and highly individual account of the symphony.

The orchestra were the last of the city's three professional bands to kick off their season, and tonight's eclectic programme was easily the most adventurous, not least for the launch of Philharmonic Labs, a project which allows concert goers to read frequent, in-play comments on the music on their phones, controlled presumably by someone in the hall with a copy of the score. The short, pithy notes allowed a higher level of detail than a printed programme note does, and, with brightness turned down, silent mode engaged and Twitter resisted, they were never a distraction. This will be an exciting season for the Philharmonic.

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