Earlier in the year BBC Radio 3 aired a programme speculating on the discovery of fragments of Sibelius’ abandoned 8th Symphony, burned in an act of psychological torment. Comedy writer Armando Iannucci greeted the news by tweeting that it was “bigger than Higgs Boson if true”. It demonstrated in light-hearted fashion the enduring reach and emotional pull that Sibelius’ symphonies still exert on audiences living almost a century later. It also further highlighted the mild sense of mystery that still envelops the Finnish composer. Tonight’s epic programme by the BBC Philharmonic was bookended by two of the lesser-played Sibelius symphonies, each showing slightly different sides to his music. The inclusion of pieces by Edvard Grieg and Per Nørgård meanwhile gave the evening a distinctly Scandinavian flavour.
Sibelius’ Symphony No. 6 in D minor opened the evening, the tentative insecurity deep within the piece being gradually overcome by the time the brass registered in resounding style in the third movement. As it evaporated into silence at the end it was difficult not to think of it as his most introspective work, sitting almost self-consciously in between the sweeping drama of his Symphony No. 5 and the iconic individualism of his Symphony No. 7. The 2012 Proms’ celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Delius was again represented tonight with Cynara, his setting of a poem by Ernest Dowson. It may be a slight piece but baritone Roderick Williams’ confident delivery helped it break up the succession of longer pieces played tonight.
The inclusion of Grieg’s unfailingly popular Piano Concerto in A minor brought a welcome injection of pace and drive to the programme, not to mention fleeting moments of Romantic glitz in the ascents and falls of both piano and strings. The heartfelt beauty of the second movement and episodes of charging strings found within the third were all conveyed well by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted tonight by John Storgårds making his Proms debut. Despite the packed programme Osborne managed to fit in an encore of his own transcription of Schumann’s Widmung before the interval.
The second half began with the UK premiere of Nørgård’s Symphony No. 7. It began promisingly with strings, woodwind & brass uniting powerfully, surging in some pleasingly bold directions. Yet it gradually seemed to lose focus, sounding excessively nuanced and overly thoughtful, and ultimately struggled to hold attention. Particularly puzzling was the massed ranks of percussion that were inexplicably muted, seemingly plotting its own course independent to the rest of the orchestra (with the tom-toms bordering on being a distracting presence).
Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 in C major found the BBC Philharmonic in tonally lighter, spring-like form, which sent the audience home content. Yet, the evening felt slightly underwhelming in some respects — the frosted, pristine nature of these Scandinavian pieces possibly suffered a little in the sweltering heat of the Royal Albert Hall. Hopefully more accommodating conditions will have been restored by the time the Berliner Philharmoniker perform Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 in A minor at the end of the month.