Cold baths tend not to appeal, no matter how good they're meant to be for us. So, one might have been forgiven for approaching this BBC Philharmonic programme of stark, chilly offerings with some trepidation, particularly on a chilly autumn evening in Manchester. Yet those who made the journey were rewarded with some of the most disciplined and powerful orchestral playing heard so far this season, as well as the chance to hear Kurt Weill's unjustly neglected Violin Concerto.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

This, and a recent work by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho were bookended by more familiar concert hall staples: Sibelius' Tapiola and Britten's Four Sea Interludes. The Sibelius was the composer's last major work, premiered in 1926, and by common consent the greatest, and certainly the weightiest, of his tone poems. Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds presided over an immacutately prepared performance which had ample Scandinavian chill and half-light as well as a splendid sense of ensemble from the vast forces. This is a trying work for the timpanist – something that only properly registers when you see a live performance – and Paul Turner was more than equal to the demands, making his impact during the stormy mid-sections without overwhelming the rest of the orchestra. Throughout, Storgårds maintained an ideal balance between the different sections, at times raising a remote worry that the whole impression might be a little too polished for a work of such rugged majesty. But this was only a very minor quibble in what was a most convincing, if almost glossy, performance.

If only the same could be said for Notes on Light, a ten year old work for cello and orchestra which offered a version of Sibelius' freezing Scandinavian forest for the 21st century. Jakob Kullberg played the sometimes angular, sometimes swooping solo part with great competence, but I am suspicious of works that incorporate a variety of percussion effects at every turn, apparently derailing progression and suggesting that noise is being used as a substitute for ideas. Stylistically, this appeared to be another exploration of the musical perma-frost, placing solo instrument and orchestra in alternately antagonistic and collaborative relation to each other. Ultimately, it offered few surprises and left only a vaguely engaging final impression.

The second half of the programme was dominated by an excellent performacne of the Weill Violin Concerto. Identifiably a work of the Weimar years, it offers an insight into the composer as as young radical, before his American exile and sharp right turn to become a master of musical comedy. Storgårds featured as soloist with an orchestra pared down to wind instruments, percussion and double basses. The theme of cold that ran through the programme was present here, too, in the wintry first movement Andante and in the Nachtmusik of the second movement's Notturno, featuring an exemplary cadenza from Storgårds, whose well-prepared forces needed very little guidance. The unusual scoring also makes space for an intriguing duel between violin and xylophone in the second movement, which made for one of the evening's most arresting moments. The attention was maintained throughout in this beguiling (and too little heard) work.

Britten's Four Sea Interludes are familiar, but more usually as a concert-opener than as a closing item; but any worries that an ending might have more the feel of a beginning were soon quashed. The febrile opening moments of the Dawn interlude, with their sense of exuberance breaking out of a calm surface, were excellently judged; so, too, were the rousing Sunday Morning and Moonlight episodes which caught precisely the respective moods of anticipation and rapt wonder. The final Storm interlude provided a visceral conclusion to a well-planned and thought-provoking programme.

****1