BBC Proms reviews

Prom 38: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/ Storgårds @ Royal Albert Hall, London

14 August 2014

John Storgårds(Photo: Heikki Tuuli)

John Storgårds
(Photo: Heikki Tuuli)

This hefty Prom brought together a couple this year’s season’s thematic strands; namely Peter Maxwell Davies’ 80th birthday celebrations and the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Two Sibelius pieces bookended Maxwell Davies’ Fifth Symphony and Bridge’s Oration; the Finnish composer’s immensely popular Finlandia and Second Symphony.

On paper this concert seemed well balanced. The challenging landscapes and bleak climates of Orkney and Finland contain many similarities, and these traits have not surprisingly filtered their way into the musical language of both Maxwell Davies and Sibelius. The two symphonies are episodic in nature, and as such need a conductor who can find an overarching sense of unity that allows the audience to experience each work as an overall entity, as opposed to a collection of interesting attention-grabbing moments.

Conductor John Storgårds only achieved this fitfully. I like my Sibelius al dente, but here the Second Symphony for the most part sounded overdone. There was little sense of the ebb and flow that the first movement requires, whilst the second suffered from Storgårds’ stop-go approach; the focus came and went, which was particularly frustrating given the immaculate playing from all sections of the BBC Philharmonic. There was the necessary bite in the third movement which led into a rousing fourth movement – here playing and conducting suddenly came into sharp focus, and the climax was suitably thrilling.

Again, Maxwell Davies’s Fifth Symphony was enlivened by some brilliant playing, but given that it’s written as one twenty-five minute movement, it requires a surer hand on the tiller than Storgårds could provide. This was a shame as Maxwell Davies conjures up many exquisite orchestral colours and shifting moods throughout this symphony, making it one of his most original sounding compositions.

Bridge’s Oration for orchestra and solo cello is, to all intents and purposes, a cello concerto. Written in the 1930s its landscape is one of desolation. Given that Bridge was a committed pacifist, this work, that hearkens back to the Great War, contains no Elgarian bombast, rather a mournful, bitter comment on the horrors and futility of war. The young cellist Leonard Elschenbroich played with depth and feeling throughout, and was dazzling in the work’s final cadenza.Despite this, and the measured accompaniment that both orchestra and conductor gave in support, Oration failed to move me in the way I expect was intended, which I put down to the fact that during its thirty minutes, very little happens melodically or thematically to sustain the listener’s attention for that length of time.

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