Any performance of a work must pay attention to the intentions of the composer, even if these are not followed to the letter. This is an especially difficult task in the case of Elgar’s Symphony No. 3, however, because it is not clear what those intentions were. The symphony, which he worked on between 1932 and 1934 remained unfinished on this death, and was elaborated (a term favoured over completed here) by Anthony Payne between 1972 and 1994. Payne faced his own challenges because what Elgar did leave indicated that he was straying markedly from the sound world of his First and Second Symphonies. As a result, what the composer produced significantly earlier in his career was of limited value in working out what was on his mind at the end of it.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Sakari Oramo, began to meet the challenges posed by all of this by delivering playing of an extremely high standard. In terms of balance, precision and cohesion across the entire ensemble this was a very strong performance, but on its own this would have only got it so far. Beyond this, it did make a concerted effort to interpret the work through everything that we do know about it.
In this way, it captured something of the dark tone of the opening to the Allegro molto maestoso, which Elgar had fully scored, and the lilting qualities of the second theme, apparently inspired by violinist Vera Hockman. Beyond this, the performance of the coda made clear the way in which the wealth of ideas that existed in the first movement now fed into its ending as it built to its C major conclusion. The orchestra also captured a sense of the second movement’s elusiveness, which lies behind its more obvious wistful character. The Adagio solemne suitably conveyed the idea of personal grief that Stephen Johnson believes distinguishes this movement from its equivalent in the Second Symphony, which tends to objectify such feelings of sorrow.
For the end of the final movement Payne had nothing to go on, but one night the idea of using its main martial theme to create a section of repeating crescendos and diminuendos, as Elgar had done in ‘The Wagon Passes’ movement from his Nursery Suite, came to him. Here, it rounded off the piece very effectively, although the final note of the entire evening, rendered by a gong, simply felt like the ‘wrong’ sound for the occasion. Nevertheless, it seemed to be the sole fault in the entire elaboration, and Payne’s achievement in successfully completing a symphony from one of England’s all-time great composers should never be underestimated.
The evening began with a performance of Sibelius’ Scènes historique – Suite No. 1, Op. 25, which captured the right sense of national pride in the depiction of the wizard-hero Väinämöinen, Sibelius’ own wider outlook as it executed the Spanish bolero, and the clinging sense of melancholy at thoughts that Finnish independence was still some years away.
The highlight of the evening, however, may well have been the performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, in which soloist Javier Perianes had the total measure of the music, as he combined the nimbleness of the French piano tradition with the sense of ‘Russian heft’ that the piece also demands. The orchestra provided superb support, but in a nice gesture declined to stand when Oramo invited them to as a way of saying that Perianes, who was making his Proms debut, deserved every ounce of the applause. His encore, Falla’s ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ from El amor brujo, was played with such brilliant intensity that his face displayed the very tension that characterised his sound.