The BBC Philharmonic’s latest concert at the Bridgewater Hall comprised three substantial works, one a popular favourite and the others much less frequent visitors to our concert halls. First came Stravinsky’s Orpheus. This is the half-hour long score for Balanchine’s ballet based on the Greek myth which was first performed in 1947. It is one of his neoclassical works – although perhaps neo-Baroque would be a better term as there were a number of suggestions of the 18th-century concerto. On the other hand, there were also reminiscences of Stravinsky’s earlier ballet music. Whatever the label, Stravinsky was not constrained by the requirements of movements and schools and Orpheus is a very individual work. Particularly striking was the beautiful, haunting opening for harp and strings (“Orpheus weeps for Euridice”) which returned in an expanded version in the concluding “Apotheosis of Orpheus”. John Storgårds, the BBC Philharmonic’s Chief Guest Conductor ensured that this predominantly slow and rarely loud music never lacked momentum. Sometimes it felt that events were unfolding in slow motion, but there always was motion. A number of instruments had important solo roles at different points during the piece but none was more prominent than the harp, expertly played by Clifford Lantaff, taking the role of Orpheus himself.

Andrei Ioniţă © Nikolaj Lund
Andrei Ioniţă
© Nikolaj Lund

After that it took a few minutes to adjust to the intense opening of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. Like many concertos written a hundred years earlier, it begins with the orchestra alone. Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic established the rich colours and atmosphere and the glorious melodies redolent of the Czech countryside (including a superb horn solo) before the evening’s soloist played a note. Andrei Ioniţă is a Romanian cellist who proved to be an ideal interpreter. He made the music his own and yet seemed to be at one with the orchestra throughout. The composer helped by ensuring that every note that he wrote for the cello could be heard. In a largely undemonstrative manner, Ioniţă gave a highly expressive performance of this most romantic of concertos. He made his cello sing, especially in the wistful second movement, and led the orchestra or blended in with it as required. He acted as accompanist sometimes, and took the limelight at others. He made light of the technical demands of the piece and had the audience hanging on his every note. The orchestral contribution was fine too, with the important woodwind details clearly building up the mood, but the evening was the soloist’s. He rewarded us with an encore: the sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1.

The symphony which constituted the second part of the concert is one that I have been enthusing about since I first heard it thirty years or so ago. This was the Symphony no. 4 by Bohuslav Martinů. Sadly, opportunities to hear a live performance are very few and far between. After the BBC Philharmonic’s performance, I cannot understand why this symphony does not have a regular place in the repertoires of orchestras all over the world, nor why it is not a popular favourite among audiences.

Martinů’s Fourth was written in the USA in 1945 in the closing months of World War 2. The composer had been away from his native Czechoslovakia for many years, first in France and then in the USA. With victory over the Nazis looking certain, Martinů was hopeful for peace in Czechoslovakia and looking forward to going home himself. Consequently the Fourth is one of the most positive and optimistic of the composer’s works. With hindsight we know that things did not turn out as expected: Martinů suffered a serious injury in 1946 which kept him in America and then with the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia he was never able to go back to his homeland again.

The opening movement launches us into Martinů’s distinctive sound world. The presence of four percussionists in addition to the timpani and an orchestral piano create a distinctive timbre for the symphony. Storgårds and the orchestra handled the rhythmic and melodic drive of the movement in an expert manner. The second movement is a Scherzo – more energetic melodies – with a gentler central section. The slow movement which follows is the reflective heart of the symphony. It begins calmly and builds up to an impassioned climax before reducing in intensity again. The finale is perhaps less overtly cheerful than the first two movements but is exuberant and positive in a different way. Storgårds marshalled the intense excitement which built up gradually until it burst out into the symphony’s triumphant conclusion. This was a magnificent performance.

****1