PROM 38: Bridge’s Eloquence Meets Orcadian and Finnish Symphonies

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 38: Sibelius, Bridge, Maxwell Davies, Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.8.2014 (RB)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies -Symphony No. 5
Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D major


This is my first Proms season for Seen and Heard International and Prom 38 was my last this year. I count myself fortunate in the selection made available to me by the S&H team and the BBC. My reviews appear as follows 10, 35, 36 and 37. Over those five concerts across four evenings I have heard two pieces by Maxwell Davies, three by Vaughan Williams, three concertante works – the violin concertos by Moeran and Walton as well as Bridge’s Oration. Add to this two Sibelius symphonies and William Alwyn’s First Symphony. The programmes appealed strongly to me and are notable for having side-stepped the conventional nineteenth- and eighteenth-entury Greats. All were with BBC house orchestras. One other observation – each of Proms 35, 36 and 38 were conducted by Scandinavians: Thomas Søndergård, Sakari Oramo and John Storgårds.

 Finnish conductor John Storgårds is Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and enters the Proms arena with substantial Sibelius credentials. He has a BBC Phil cycle of the seven symphonies to his credit (Chandos CHAN10809(3)). It’s well past time I got down to reviewing that set given this conductor’s defiant approach to the Second.

 The Royal Albert Hall was almost full for this concert which began with a rousing Finlandiain which the hall’s echo took a bow or two for the opening brass fanfares. This recurred for similar brassy moments in the Second Symphony. Maybe it’s the hall’s acoustics again but there was almost a softness about the brass fanfares which undermined some of their rasping impact. This was more soft focus. I had guessed at something more gruff and imperious. On the other hand, the strings blossomed with confident ardour and the hymn made its fervent impact.

 This was followed by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No. 5. The composer was there in the audience. This work had moments which I found accessible but much of its continuous 25-minute progress registered as a virtuoso concerto for orchestra rather than something of outright symphonic moment. I am not competent to address questions of technical structure but that is how it felt. It’s certainly powerful but atmospheric and episodic rather than describing a symphonic parabola. The music radiated a sense of marching eldritch nightmares. Among a kaleidoscope of episodes the moments that registered strongly included a couple of hellish flurries for trumpet solo, a queazy jingling swannee whistle effect which was also used in the Caroline Mathilde suite in Prom 35 (review)  and a very potent quiet march at the close. The composer came forward to acknowledge the applause and, as there had been for Thomas Søndergård on Tuesday, there was a hug and evident sincere gratitude to John Storgårds and the orchestra for presenting what was clearly a most demanding work.

 Quiet and unbelligerent marches carried over as a link into Frank Bridge’s Oration for cello and orchestra. Like Bridge’s other two post-World War I pieces – the Piano Sonata and Phantasm for piano and orchestra – this is dark, mournful, resentful, wounded, grief-stricken and eloquent. It reflects Bridge’s change of musical language seemingly brought about by the Great War. This majors on atmosphere and never feels any attraction towards showmanship. Bridge subtitled it Concerto Elegiaco but it is far more of an elegy than a display vehicle. Not once does its seriousness falter. Trumpets and drums are much in evidence but used in an impressionistic way. There’s no vainglory in these trumpets and Bridge’s fanfares are heard as if from over the crest of the hill. Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich played without a score and with great aplomb. He might well care to seek out a work of similar vintage and with Great War connections – this time French – in Caplet’s Epiphanie, also for cello and orchestra. There was sustained and lengthy applause for the Bridge and no wonder – the chilly but deeply moving epilogue is one of the treasures of the world’s twentieth-century music. The cello sings out over the hushed tolling of the harp. Elschenbroich returned to the stage several times to acknowledge the hall’s appreciation until he eventually relented and played an unusual and effective encore: the finale from Hindemith’s Sonata for solo cello. This he did with sparks and panache – some compensation for those who hankered after more dash and scintillation than Bridge had written in Oration.

 Sibelius’s Second Symphonyis a warhorse these days but Storgårds was not going to give us anything conventional. I did not time it but by my very rough count it ran for over 55 minutes. That’s long and there were times when it sounded more like a dissection –  detailed laying bare rather than a romantic tumult. The brass and strings are the main attraction and there was plenty of exciting playing from those quarters. In addition the conductor, through some attentive decisions about balance, allowed many often lost woodwind details to float free. The effect was very pleasing and fresh. The slow movement in particular signalled that this was to be an epic, extended and even indulgent reading. The cellos delivered a nice line in Slavic melancholy later coupled with the sliding and sidling murmur that makes me think Sibelius must have known the opening pages of Balakirev’s Thamar. The finale boasted some great playing from horns and trumpets – not to mention the tuba – but, my, how Storgårds drew out the music. It diced with seeming distended but stayed only just the right side of expansive. For me this was as deeply satisfying as a Francesca da Rimini I recall from the Proms in 1979 when the much underrated Yuri Ahronovitch took the LSO through a braying and moaning epic-scaled reading. If you are looking for contrast the other volcanic extreme for Sibelius 2 can be heard on CD from Beecham and Barbirolli both with the RPO. If you want something more middle of the road but still special then try the earlier Ormandy recording.

Rob Barnett

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