Storgårds Fails to Engage BBC Philharmonic in Sibelius

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sibelius, Beethoven, Sibelius: Martin Roscoe (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 16.3.2012 (MC)

Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C major (1904/7)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (1800)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)

The chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic John Storgårds  has conducted the BBC Philharmonic three times previously but this was his debut as the orchestra’s new principal guest conductor. It was not surprising that expectations were high for Finnish born Storgårds, a Nordic music specialist, conducting two symphonies by his fellow countryman Sibelius. With only an hour and a half of music in the programme there was ample time to accommodate another substantial Sibelius score, such as Pohjola’s Daughter; The Oceanides or Tapiola.

Curiously Herbert von Karajan – such a great judge of music quality – although making several recordings of Sibelius symphonies in his career never made a recording of the Third Symphony. To my knowledge Karajan never even conducted the symphony and neither has it been popular over the years with his world famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Agreeable and often triumphal in the right hands Sibelius’s Third Symphony felt a touch restricted without any sense of the epic in this performance from Storgårds. Said to represent fog banks drifting along the English coast in the opening movement I wanted a greater sense of mystery and anticipation. Storgårds directed a slow burning intensity to the Finale yet the fire, although ignited, never flamed.

Completed by Sibelius some seventeen years later the Seventh Symphony is a work that can overflow with austere splendour. I wanted to experience the nature sounds and feel the icy chill of Nordic forests but it all felt emotionally underwhelming – a touch watered down. In both symphonies we saw Storgårds on the podium energetically prompting, cajoling and wielding a fiery baton. Yet there was little response. I didn’t sense much of a connection between the orchestra and their new principal guest conductor, which I guess will need time to develop.

Martin Roscoe’s incisively vibrant performance of Beethoven Third Piano Concerto provided the most successful performance of the evening. This progressive yet attractive score heralded a new direction for Beethoven away from the classical style of the time.  Roscoe’s enthusiastic and assured playing brought out the turbulent emotions of Beethoven’s dynamic and thematically varied writing. At times I wanted poetry from the soloist rather than occasional workmanlike playing; yet the positives predominated. Glorious string playing in the Largo combined with Roscoe’s assured pianism conveyed a burnished glow of tender affection.

Playing keenly and often beautifully throughout the evening the BBC Philharmonic sounded eminently better suited to the early romanticism of Beethoven than to Finnish fire and ice.

Michael Cookson

(The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for a future broadcast.)