A Smiling Chill from Grieg and a Bleak Chill from Vaughan Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grieg & Vaughan Williams: BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 2.11.2016. (RB)

Grieg – Lyric Suite

Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 6

This short concert which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (Afternoon on 3) was extremely well attended. People were being directed to seats up to several minutes before John Storgårds breezed in radiating his usual up-tempo energy. It’s been a long while since I heard the Grieg Lyric Suite so I was surprised by its flickering interplay of suave nuance and pastel hue; such an inventive score. Storgårds conducted baton-less for two movements (I; III) with both hands and often with fingers spread, sturdy, energetic and directional. It was not all delicacy: there were some sovereign if often brief contributions from the brass. The experience by far exceeded the usual Grieg cliché of “bonbons stuffed with snow”; much more poetically effective than that. By the time he and the BBC Philharmonic had finished I rather wished that Grieg had orchestrated all of the Lyric Pieces.

Non-British conductors have made a positive impact with Vaughan Williams’ more “international” symphonies. In this category I put symphonies 4 and 6 both of which, in potential, have an excoriating potency. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, André Previn, Paavo Berglund, Dmitri Mitropoulos and Leopold Stokowski (loosely non-Brit) all made fiery recordings of either or both of these symphonies. Storgårds stands in this broad ‘tradition’. He asserted himself right from the eruptive start which came across as if some Titan had taken two steel hurricane doors and ripped them off their hinges. The dogs of war and hell are let loose. No – really. At times the sheer blast of the sound in that first movement leapt out at the audience. The evidence of desperately exciting playing and an unwavering grip on momentum was undeniable. Also well and naturally managed were those transitions of tempo and mood from furnace fury to calming coolness. The most notable example of this last came with that archetypal beatitude of a melody (used once and then gone) that is prefaced by the plangent peace of an ostinato from two harps.

I recall part of the Symphony being used so tellingly as the theme music for ITV’s “A Family at War” when the symphony was far less well known than it is now. That was shown from 1970 until what happened to be RVW centenary year: 1972. There was no pause between movements. The second of these was intensely desolate – a sense of bleakness with even the trace elements of sweetness purged. The trumpet ostinato, in carefully delineated dynamics, was relentless and the evolution into a growling updraught superbly handled. The cor anglais takes the role of the sincere comforter – an echo of “the Sisters Death and Night” from Dona Nobis Pacem but that ostinato reasserts itself in the drums.

The third movement pelts along – a hellish capering dance with the saxophone gaining the same fleeting prominence it had in the first movement. The harp’s stiletto-stabbing notes were notable. A blanched and bleached world is limned in the finale. Even the harp is shorn of anything approaching lushness. The fade to niente – contrasting with the blast furnace volume of the first movement – was extremely effective. Fittingly there was a long silence before the applause began. This was a very special performance and again signals this orchestra and Storgårds as grand musicians. They give every appearance of really enjoying working with each other. Let’s hear more from him in Manchester. Why not Allan Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony or Bax’s Sixth before the managements of the world’s greatest orchestras wake up and reel Storgårds in and pin him to the standard repertoire.

Rob Barnett

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