Distinguished Schumann ‘Rheinish’ performance is the highlight of the BBC Philharmonic’s Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2021 [8] – Britta Byström, Sibelius, and Schumann: Liza Ferschtman (violin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 10.8.2021. (MB)

Liza Ferschtman (violin) (c) Chris Christodoulou

Britta Byström – Parallel Universes (world premiere)

Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47

Schumann – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Rhenish’, op.97

Fine performances here from the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds, from violinist Liza Ferchtman too. If my enthusiasm was considerably stronger for the second half (rather less than half) of the concert than the first, that was on account of repertoire rather than performance.

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic (c) Chris Christodoulou

Britta Byström’s Parallel Universes was another of this year’s Proms commissions. Where Augusta Read Thomas, two nights previously, had presented a ballet of proteins, reflecting in contemporary terms on the hall’s Albertine heritage of arts and sciences (review), Byström’s inspiration came from the cosmologist Max Tegmark’s conception of parallel universes, ‘in which we might encounter exact copies of ourselves’. Its four sections, or ‘levels’, corresponded to Tegmark’s four levels of ‘multiverses’. Her account in the programme of the techniques employed to transfer this conception into music whetted the appetite, yet I could not help but feel, at least on a first hearing, that the result was of generic, ‘soft modernist’ Proms commission music. At the first level, high-lying strings — one encounters them at the opening of many such a piece — did a little swarming. At the second, there was greater harmonic change and, to be fair, some genuinely beguiling sounds at what we might call its centre. And so it continued, over twelve minutes or so. There was nothing to frighten anyone away; it was skilfully put together, colourful within bounds, and yet…

On to Sibelius. Replacing Jennifer Pike, Liza Ferschtman gave a commanding performance of the Violin Concerto, ably supported by Storgårds and the BBC PO. Ferschtman’s opening silken tone developed into something richer and darker as required. Storgårds, visibly and audibly, knew just when to have the orchestra dig in to produce something extra, when to scale back, and much more. The first movement in particular benefited from a good sense of harmonic rhythm. It was on the grand scale, leading to a thrilling coda, though I confess to a lack of understanding of why the composer takes so long to get there as he does. Rapt intensity, not least from Ferschtman’s violin and the horns, characterised much of the slow movement, full orchestra responding in ardent fashion. There was no question of Ferschtman’s Romantic conception of the work and it was probably all the better for it. Razor-sharp in the finale, against a colourful and powerfully directed orchestra, Ferschtman clearly knew where she was going and how to get there. There were times, though, when I had to take her word for it.

Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony received a fresh performance, full of life and extremely well balanced. (Pay no heed to fashion victims who tell you Schumann’s orchestra must be small; it must be balanced.) Storgårds’s first movement was typical of the whole: flexible, directed, and with a keen ear for detail, structure in time becoming form. Beethovenian (motivic) and Mendelssohnian (textures, inner parts) tendencies were present, but Schumann’s sum was rightly very much more than any number of parts. The second and third movements flowed nicely in their own allied yet different ways. A strong sense of line guided unobtrusively in these legs of what it was tempting to consider as Schumann’s Rhine Journey. ‘Characteristic’ characteristics, if you will forgive the term, were present, not least wonderfully Mendelssohn-like longing in the third. One’s first encounter with Cologne Cathedral will surely always be special. Given that I had waited so long, seeing it only in early 2020, just prior to Götterdämmerung, there was something especially moving about the fourth movement’s musical re-encounter. It is not the Cathedral itself, of course, but music, and that proved luminous, well-paced, comprehending, and quietly, even not so quietly, magnificent. Thereafter, the final offered necessary release, shifting the immediacy of its predecessor to a powerful, moving memory. The vernal freshness of the first movement returned, if indeed it had ever truly gone away, but lightly transformed in the light of experience.

Mark Berry

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