Phenomenal Philharmonia concert conducted by Ryan Bancroft (absolutely a star in the making)

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Beethoven, Nielsen: Sir Stephen Hough (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.5.2023. (CC)

Ryan Bancroft © Chris Christodoulou

SibeliusLemminkäinen Legends, Op.22: No.2, The Swan of Tuonela (1895)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37 (1800)
Nielsen – Symphony No.4, ‘Inextinguishable’ (1916)

Ryan Bancroft and the Philharmonia first collaborated on a streamed performance from the Queen Elizabeth Hall during lockdown. The American conductor has been reviewed many times in Seen and Heard International thanks to his association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) as he has been their Principal Conductor since September 2021 (he is also Artist in Association of Finland’s Tapiola Sinfonietta, and in 2021 was announced as Chief Conductor Designate of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he takes up in September 2023. Bancroft won the Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen in April 2018, so a bias towards Scandinavia is perhaps inevitable – both in the musicians he conducts, and in the actual music he programmes.

Or so it would seem, with music by a Swede and a Dane sandwiching the concerto. How nice it was to have a ‘meat and two veg’ concert: Overture-Concerto-Symphony. Just like the good old days. The Sibelius was the perfect opener, atmospheric, and perfectly paced, emerging from silence beautifully in a sort of Nordic Lohengrin moment; out of shimmering strings, the cor anglais emerged, lonely, beautiful. Henry Clay was the emotive cor anglais soloist, with Tim Hugh’s solo cello contributions equally special. Bancroft gave the music the perfect amount of space; the Philharmonia string sound was luminous, but the most notable aspect of this performance was the forensic clarity we heard. Quiet brass tolled ominously under Sibelius’s long string melody; small wonder the audience was reduced to rapt silence. Bancroft conducts minus baton, his beat incredibly expressive.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Sir Stephen Hough was another example of familiar repertoire heard afresh, this time with a first movement that was fast (a clear two in a bar), but with space given to the second subject (in the orchestral exposition, a molten clarinet solo from Mark van de Wiel). In keeping with the first subject/second subject axis (van de Wiel excelled in the finale, also), Hough’s reading was all about contrasts between the dynamic and the lyrical; his first movement cadenza (the Beethoven) was considered, no mere display vehicle and emerging all the stronger for it.

The central Largo began daringly freely, an interior statement whose heart seemed to lie in the woodwind soloist underpinned by piano arpeggios. Hough just controlled the solo diminuendo descent into nothingness; and how perfectly the final arpeggiation sounded (with Hough a participant in the movement’s very final chord). There was a near-Bachian exactitude to Hough’s articulation in the theme of the finale, with fine sf accents and crisp arpeggios in dialogue with trumpets and (hard-sticked) drums. The encore took us from a swan to a bird: Robert Schumann’s ‘Vogel als Prophet’ (the seventh piece of Waldszenen, Op.82) whispered, with a perfectly weighted central section. Beautiful.

Finally, Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, the so-called ‘Inextinguishable’, opening in a blaze of flickering lights, tempo shifts beautifully done, rhythmically grounded and strong. Bancroft revealed Nielsen’s scoring as miraculously inventive: jerky first violins against pizzicato seconds and pulsating violas all underscored by timpani as a particularly noteworthy moment. The music calmed itself perfectly to elide the first movement into the second, with its blissfully pastoral woodwind, coloured by a touch of acid in the harmonies (in a reprinted interview in the programme booklet, Bancroft refers to this opening as ‘quite moving in its simplicity’ and that he also finds it ‘cute as heck’). Again, it was the scoring that stood out – the solo double bass of Alexander Jones against woodwind. This was perfectly bucolic in nature, everything perfectly rehearsed and realised.

The slow movement (Poco adagio quasi andante) was a unique admixture of horror (a violin shriek at one point) and rigorous linear counterpoint. Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is probably most well-known for the two antiphonal timpani in the finale, and the way they respond to each other in an almost outrageous fashion – superbly delivered here by Antoine Siguré and Marney O’Sullivan.

A phenomenal concert, one that far exceeded already high expectations. Ryan Bancroft is absolutely a star in the making.

Colin Clarke

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