Can artists ever be born at the wrong time? Many have thought so, not least Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose centenary year this is. He was too young to have been part of the modernist development before World War Two – one thinks of Hindemith and Karl Amadeus Hartmann – and yet in post-war Germany he was regarded as too old to be fully accepted by the avant-gardist Darmstadt School. Less than a decade after writing his Symphony in One Movement he argued: “It’s not tradition that creates the composer, it’s the composer who creates tradition.” This work formed a powerful ending to the first half of the BBC Philharmonic’s concert under John Storgårds.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

The sense of the cataclysmic, of disintegration and fragmentation, of great waves of repressed rage breaking through (Zimmermann emerged from his wartime service a permanent invalid and later took his own life), was well conveyed, though the brisk speeds and the tight rein controlling the flow were sometimes at the expense of some of the filigree textures that offer moments of repose and reflection. In particular, there is a central section suggestive of a requiem for the lost state of innocence where individual orchestral voices sigh, quiver and whimper. It’s a piece which certainly lends itself to the wide spaces of the Royal Albert Hall – I am surprised it took this long for it to receive its first Proms performance – and I am disappointed that Storgårds opted for the revised version of 1953 rather than the original with its magnificent organ obbligato.

Composers, like everybody else, have to earn a living. Zimmermann worked for one of the leading German radio stations, writing arrangements of almost everything under the sun (including folk music) and providing incidental music for radio plays. In the rediscovery of melodies and their transmutation he was part of a long tradition stretching back even further than Liszt, half of whose 800 or so piano compositions were themselves arrangements. Few would question the ultimate defence of such transcriptions put forward by Busoni: “Why are variations considered worthy because they change the original, while arrangements are considered unworthy because they too change the original?”

Liszt was represented here with four orchestrations of Lieder by Schubert as well as his Wanderer Fantasy. Elizabeth Watts was the fine, silvery-toned soloist whose dramatic projection and communicative powers were heard to advantage in “Die junge Nonne” and “ Lied der Mignon”. In “Gretchen am Spinnrade” the sense of restlessness at the outset (“Meine Ruh’ ist hin”) was somewhat underplayed and words were later lost through overloud accompaniment. “Erlkönig” is always a major test. Schubert places each of the four characters in the song – narrator, father, son and the Erlking himself (a kind of supernatural demon) – in different vocal ranges. Some things worked, like Watts’ beautifully ethereal tones for “Du liebes Kind”, matched by the siren-like qualities of the accompanying flutes. However, I doubt whether any female voice can summon up quite the dynamic range and weight to do full justice to the male protagonists.

In the Wanderer Fantasy Louis Lortie’s first entry was gentle and ruminative, underlined by the mellow sweetness of his Bechstein instrument, and matching the dance-like buoyancy of the orchestral introduction. Yet for most of the first movement there was not much evidence of the composer’s con fuoco marking. He was at his best in the following Adagio where the chamber-like mood was very much to the fore, the solo piano providing an oasis of calm in which the solo cello and horn added flecks of colouring.

Heterogeneity as an organising principle in Proms programmes inevitably invites criticism. The programme-book claimed that the twin themes of this evening were “music compressed and music enlarged”, but I remain unpersuaded that this gave much coherence to the proceedings as a whole. Quite what the Meistersinger overture was doing at the start of this concert, in which Storgårds and the orchestra meandered their way through with little sense of the festive or ceremonial, is anybody’s guess. Given the sweltering weather conditions it might have been thought that Sibelius’ last symphony – given as a kind of sundowner – would have added a welcome touch of Nordic iciness at the close. Storgårds’ reading of the piece underlined its structural qualities: there was a good sense of flow, of the musical argument slowly unfolding, and the opening was hymnic in mood rather than brooding or mysterious. Some details stood out, such as the wind sounding like collective gaggles of chattering geese, and trombones which broke through the textures like rays of bright sunshine. But the strings often seemed under-nourished, especially at the central climax, and those atmospheric moments dappling this symphony – such as the poignant oboe-led episode towards the close which sounds like weary limbs being stirred back into life  – flitted quickly by.