Stasevska and the BBC SO’s Sibelius helps make for a hugely enjoyable evening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Sol Gabetta (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 21.10.2022. (KMcD)

Dalia Stasevska conducts Sol Gabetta (cello) and the BBC SO © BBC/Sarah Louise Bennett

Iain Farrington – A Party with Auntie
Dai Fujikura – Glorious Clouds
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E Minor
Sibelius – Symphony No.1 in E minor

After a Total Immersion weekend dedicated to Finland’s most famous musical son a few weeks ago, the BBC SO was back with more Sibelius under its Principal Guest Conductor, Dalia Stasevska. Being Finnish herself, it will come as no surprise to learn that this music is in her blood, which was evident as she guided her players through an engrossing account of his First Symphony. Often considered to be a natural descendent of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic writing, there are occasional musical nods to his style, Sibelius’s soundworld is one which unmistakably depicts a landscape of forests and fjords.

Stasevska never let us forget this – from the atmospheric, hushed opening on the timpani, over which a lone clarinet provides a poignant, chilling lament (beautifully voiced by Richard Hosford), to the dramatic theme on the strings – she charted a course throughout the first movement that was propulsive, yet never sacrificed detail. In the second movement, which is the one that is most redolent of Tchaikovsky, she conjured a sense of ethereal charm and delicacy.

The Scherzo, with its repetitive, seven-note theme for the timpani (immaculately handled by Paul Stoneman) had immense bite, as well as colossal guts and drive. Similarly, the last movement, from its anguished opening to its nihilistic conclusion, was faultlessly paced, and superbly played. Maybe a couple of Stasevska’s tempo choices erred on the side of caution earlier on in the piece, but despite this minor quibble, the overall impact was quite devastating – the silence after the music had faded into nothingness spoke volumes.

BBC SO conducted by Dalia Stasevska in the Barbican Hall © BBC/Sarah Louise Bennett

The first half of the concert was made up of three contrasting pieces, one of which was a late addition to the programme – Iain Farrington’s A Party with Auntie – which was scheduled to receive its premiere at the Last Night of the Proms. A musical homage to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the BBC, Farrington’s witty romp which blended a selection of tunes from some of the broadcaster’s more iconic shows certainly had flair and displayed much technical compositional wizardry. Imagine a musical version of Leonard Bernstein ordering a pint in the Queen Vic and you would not be far off the mark. We spotted Animal Magic, Match of the Day, The Antiques Roadshow and EastEnders whirling their way through the counterpoint. This five-minute trip down memory lane certainly put a smile on everyone’s faces.

We were then treated, if that is the right word, to the UK premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Glorious Clouds, inspired, according to the programme notes, by the Japanese composer’s fascination with microbiomes – collections of bacteria, viruses and fungi on or in the human body. An interesting basis for a musical composition, the work was made up of some telling blocks of harmonic progression, but like so many new works, there was far too much reliance on string glissandi. After Last Days at The Royal Opera earlier in the month, which was overflowing with them, composers might consider giving them a rest for a while. Despite this, the BBC SO played the complex score unflinchingly.

Sol Gabetta was the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and generally delivered an impassioned and immaculate interpretation of what is arguably one of the most popular cello concertos in the repertoire. Once past some hesitancy at the start – both she and Stasevska seemed reluctant to get under the skin of this great work – her playing blossomed and the synergy between the two of them was palpable. Did she manage to mine all the emotional facets of the work? Maybe not, but even so that did not detract from a performance that highlighted her superb technique and formidable interpretative powers.

All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable evening – made memorable by an overwhelming performance of Sibelius’s First Symphony.

Keith McDonnell

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