Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 34: Moody introspection and menace from the BBC Philharmonic in an evening of Elgar, Sibelius and Thorvaldsdottir

11 August 2022


Another eclectic mix of music from the Proms.

Prom 34

BBC Philharmonic, Kian Soltani & Eva Ollikainen (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

“The halo emerges from the Primordia but they have lost both perspective and the connection to one another…” No? Me neither. But it serves as some sort of explanation by Anna Thorvaldsdottir of her piece ARCHORA, premièred at Thursday evening’s Prom. It’s not quite ‘John Luther Adams level’ New Age boilerplate hokum, but it’s close. The work itself was essentially a transition from an omnipresent D-flat to an equally omnipresent D via a series of piled on cluster chords, spiral woodwind descents, rhythmic bass drum patterns, ‘bottle top’ flute notes, col legno string passages and stutters, burps, scratches and rustles from a battery of percussion (you know a piece has attained full 21st century cred when a percussionist picks up a bow).

It wasn’t an unapproachable work, and as an exercise in texture and glacial orchestral movement, it certainly had its moments. The BBC Philharmonic under Eva Ollikainen’s fluid yet precise control gave us some artfully moulded statements of orchestral colour and technique, and a few ‘oh, that’s a nice sound’ moments; but, as with many of works of this nature, a kind of weariness at the procession of ‘let’s see what this sounds like’ sequences set in quite soon, and one was glad of the announcement of the end by a series of traditional cadential phrases in the low strings.

The cellist Kian Soltani’s account of the Elgar concerto was arguably the most introspective version I have heard. One felt that he was almost bewildered that Elgar had put all those instruments there to compete with him, but decided, anyway, to soldier on in his own personal space, and at his own preferred levels of dynamic (quiet), with his eyes closed for much of the performance.

“…a series of piled on cluster chords, spiral woodwind descents, rhythmic bass drum patterns, ‘bottle top’ flute notes, col legnostring passages and stutters, burps, scratches and rustles”…

Prom 34

Eva Ollikainen (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

This is not to say it wasn’t a beautiful interpretation – far from it; within the bracket of his dynamic, Soltani achieved some glorious subtleties of tone and expression, bringing all of Elgar’s plaintive yearning to the fore (the wispiness of the passages in the slow movement was special indeed, and the final reiteration of the main theme was spellbinding), but it was where the solo instrument interacted with the orchestra that some odd moments occurred. Ollikainen exerted iron control, such that the orchestra – particularly the strings – often managed to match Soltani’s dynamic and mood, but this wasn’t always the case, and the concerto sometimes suffered from unintended lurches in volume: the occasional solo wind instrument, for example, that twists out of the texture, sounding, despite a pianissimo attack, almost harsh; the opening bars – where those famous cello arpeggios are often wrenched from the instrument in a kind of angry grief – were performed so gently that they were completely masked by the double bass pedal note.

The moodiness of Sibelius’ second symphony – particularly in the mercurial second movement – is often difficult to judge, and, by and large, Ollikainen and the orchestra managed it well. There was a steely quality to a deal of the playing that added a sinister note to a lot of the symphony; the passages for brass chorus, while containing some warmth, also managed to intimate a chill breeze at times; the horns, particularly in the early part of the first movement, sounded edgy and metallic, and the opening pizzicato from the low strings at the start of the second movement seemed almost to threaten. While the broad theme at the beginning of the last movement felt a shade too brisk and no-nonsense, there were, nonetheless, some moments of bonhomie in the account: the chattering woodwind in the first movement, and the safe haven of the interlude for woodwind and strings in the second. Throughout, the shifts in dynamic and tempo were excellently handled such that, although it wasn’t the most impassioned of accounts, Ollikainen’s vision for structure and form was evident.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.


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Prom 34: Moody introspection and menace from the BBC Philharmonic in an evening of Elgar, Sibelius and Thorvaldsdottir