Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale was the first work in the BBC Philharmonic's programme under John Storgårds. Completed in 1842, but unpublished until 1853, Schumann had intended this to be his Second Symphony. It was turned down by his publisher Friedrich Hofmeister but eventually published by Kistner of Leipzig. From the very first notes, the orchestra played with intense musicality, Storgårds' arched phrases creating a sense of balance that would feature heavily later in the evening. The drama of the opening gave way to calmer and lyrical passages with full-bodied string tone. Storgårds made the most of the Beethovenian central section. The Scherzo, the central movement of this quasi-symphony, was aptly paced with stylish dynamics, the horn playing commendable. An engaging and characterful finale had some fine musical detail, the louder moments filling Bridgewater Hall with an ambience of grandeur in this polished performance.

John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Robin Holloway's Phaeton’s Journey: Son of Sun, a world premiere and BBC commission, was the work at the core of the programme. Holloway describes it as a “concertante for trumpet and orchestra”, which from the demanding trumpet part, may be a modest description. The trumpet represents both characters Son and Sun — Phaeton and Apollo. Cast in a single movement of approximately 30 minutes, the work tells the narrative of this myth accordingly to Ovid. The piece is impressive musically as it proportions harmony with dissonance and solos with orchestral interludes, all with a sense of excitement. This is a piece which is judiciously balanced to please and intrigue. The story was clear, told through the highly sophisticated orchestration. Between each solo passage there was an orchestral episode, each colourful with an authoritative understating of how to use the orchestral palette to maximum effect. Soloist Håkan Hardenberger was the undoubted star of the performance. Some phrases were exceptionally long, taken in a single breath. Hardenberger played with complete assurance and a warm tone; the trumpet writing is very technically demanding which sounded effortless in his more than capable hands. Phaeton’s destiny and fatal crash was clearly depicted to end this celestial chariot ride, a gong resonating while a celesta played a transcendent passage. Hardenberger lowered his trumpet with the uttermost dignity and respect during the orchestral coda as if to signify the passing of Phaeton. Holloway came to the platform to acknowledge the rapturous applause.

After the interval, almost seamlessly carrying on from the Holloway, came Valentin Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony. Not a composer widely known, particularly in Western Europe, Silvestrov was born in Ukraine in 1937, and studied at the Kiev Conservatoire. His Fifth Symphony, written between 1980–82, is an under-performed masterpiece of the late 20th century. The work is cast a single, slow movement lasting approximately 45 minutes. There are a small number of recordings of the piece and it was clear Storgårds had his own very unique idea how this work should evolve, in an almost organic process. Storgårds paced the work convincingly, creating a greater sense of timeless than in some recordings, casting a hypnotic spell. Silvestrov's sound world is mostly cinematic, which may at times accompany cataclysmic scenes in the minds eye. Like the Holloway, there are times for consonance and dissonance. Silvestrov’s textures and sounds are at times akin to Britten and Mahler.

The symphony opens with gravitas, chords – complex and dissonant with percussion tremolos – dissipating out to a tritone. Each of these chords Storgårds phrased architecturally. As the symphony progressed these chords acted as markers and with each reoccurrence, they were given a different character by the conductor. Each time, the musical landscape morphed, refocusing through a musical haze of cosmic dust, unfolding naturally. Storgårds clearly understood this and engaged the players in this vision. In the substantial passages for strings, memorable melancholic tonal melodies are employed. Here the sound was laden with luscious string sonorities from the BBC Philharmonic. Silvestrov's music yearns for harmonic resolution which it finds, fading away to nothing. It felt as one had travelled through space and time, a transcendental tour of musical destruction and recreation. Complete silence followed, a moment of reflection, testimony to Storgårds’ extraordinary vision of how this piece should unfold.