BBC Philharmonic, The Bridgewater Hall; ‘Tragedy and Humour, Darkness and Light’: Sibelius, Tapiola / Kaija Saariaho, Notes on Light / Weill, Violin Concerto / Britten, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; November 5 2016.

Tapiola, Sibelius’ last great orchestral work before he finally hit the mute button and succumbed to absolute silence at his beloved Ainola, where he also held occasional ceremonial burning parties, opens the evening’s programme. The work, a dense, glistening, uneasy evocation of Finnish forests abounds with varied textures and sonorities, opposing light and dark, the tonal and the atonal, saturation and minimalism. Indeed, Tapiola in structure, instrumentation and tonal ideas pre-empts much of what would happen in later 20th Century music, certainly decisively influencing it, an influence not just confined to his fellow Finns such as Kaija Saariaho, who we will hear from later in this evening’s programme, and Magnus Lindberg.

Sibelius’ score encourages the musician and listener to consider all that might abound and emerge within these mysterious, atmospheric, claustrophobic places, that which is both of this world and not of this world. The titling of the piece after the wood-spirit of the Kalevala was not Sibelius’ original compositional plan – he was working with a symbolist lens of trying to express and communicate the experience of nature through music alone – without the additional legendary underlay, but it ultimately adds an extra layer of intrigue and deepens the range of ideas we may broach around both this music, the composer himself and the spaces and places it came to occupy.

These oppositions set an appropriate platform for an evening of music exploring what the concert title and notes tells us will be an exploration of ‘Tragedy and Humour; Darkness and Light’. Saariaho’s Notes on Light and Weill’s Violin Concerto are to be sandwiched between ‘two distinct visions of the natural world’. Sibelius first, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes last.

Outside the concert hall, inside it as well I suppose, it is Bonfire night. Burning parties everywhere, the raw air is expectant with trails of smoke. Perhaps Sibelius would have smirked at the irony, then run off to find more unfinished manuscripts to pile up high in his gigantic fireplace. The sky above Manchester is bursting at the seams with sizzling, exploding rockets. If only the same could be said for audience numbers in the auditorium. The Bridgewater Hall cuts a rather disconsolate figure. Who can lay open the reasoning behind this, lack of interest, schedule clashes? The stalls are about three-quarters full. A scattering of us occupy the circle and choir circles. A young couple pose and take pictures of themselves during the interval, an old couple in the circle alcove behind the stage remain in their scarves for the whole performance. Temperatures have dipped lately but the Nordic music on offer imparts its own chill. As for the galleries, it’s a forest of empty purple seats up there. Oh well, fireworks are so monotone anyway and the bows of the string section that flare and move in units together are just as intense.

As in the man himself there is evident silence in Tapiola, a long pause around one minute in (and liberal use of rests for effect across the sections of the orchestra throughout the piece) and a longer silence very near the end where the music simply disappears (like light, like mist, like cloud, like trees, like a person lost in the forest, like a wood-spirit only can?) before the strings reappear with a stark, spectral tremolando passage that builds and builds dementedly, an example of what James Hepokoski refers to in several Sibelius works as sound-sheets. The effect is to force the listener back into the realisation of the sum-total of his or her own life and all its implications. Deal with it. Tapiola combines terror, delirium and elation equally and the orchestra express this in an extremely well-honed, sensitive and attentive interpretation of the piece. At times it is truly beautiful. Sibelius, a failed violinist, obviously still held a great deal of affection for and interest in the instrument and the string writing in the piece is exquisite, violins particularly, but also a sustained passage, which is played by the cellos near the start as the main theme is passed around the orchestra, is darkly lovely, full of suspense, foreboding and yet gentle. Timpani are also busy and prominent on different dynamic levels and are more than skilfully handled. The little up and down rushes of the flutes from time to time are striking and have a lovely if disturbing effect, as do the flutes generally, whenever present.

Saariaho’s Notes on Light and soloist, Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg, are up next. He strides onto stage in a nifty prominently collared black jacket, takes a seat, sets the endpin into its hole in the soloist’s box that has been carted on, arranges a folded out, taped together and rather wide looking score on a tiny music stand, then, after exchanging a quick look with conductor [and later in the Weill concerto violin soloist for the evening] John Storgårds, is ready to go. This is an extremely demanding work, only for the most dextrous soloist, who is required to use both high and low extremes of the instrument’s neck, strings, register and everywhere in between, fingering hand often intruding on the bowing area to produce a note or sound. Kullberg plays it impeccably, the variety and the clarity of sounds, timbres and effects he produces from his cello, the dynamic range throughout the work’s five movements remarkable, but the orchestra seem and look non-committal. They have to do a lot of waiting, maybe this is the problem, or maybe they have read and are remembering the quotation from Eliot’s The Waste Land, included at the end of the score (… I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.’) and are preoccupied with that? Perhaps they are missing out on bonfire parties.

Saariaho’s piece gradually, tentatively introduces the orchestra and soloist to each other, the dialogue becoming more mutually involved as the work moves along to a point where in the latter stages the cello is subsumed only to finally emerge again. This is crystalline music, definitely not ‘light music’, where concept and sonic architecture come to the fore to demonstrate the cello’s range and sketches of how light might sound, where that ever possible.

Kullberg also plays an encore, a short anguished, twisted piece for solo cello by a fellow Dane, the composer Per Nørgård, whom he enjoys a close professional collaboration with. The piece is based on Beckett’s final poem ‘What is the Word’. ‘Norgard was interested in this question proposed by the title’, says Kullberg, affable, slight Danish accent, now stood at the front of the stage, ‘So here is the answer’.

Returning from the interval the stage has been rearranged for a much smaller ensemble to perform Weill’s Violin Concerto (the piece is scored for woodwind, a scattering of brass, a couple of double basses, percussion and obviously the violin). This is Weill as uncompromising, avant-garde young firebrand, before he was excoriated as a populist degenerate, crossed the border for Paris then hopped on the earliest and quickest boat bound for the States, and the piece, written in 1925, just precedes the period in Weill’s career where he found increasingly great interest and success in writing for the stage, notably collaborating with Bertolt Brecht and George Kaiser. There are slight hints of that burgeoning, studied tunesmith, but mostly these outbursts across the three movements are cut off by complex atonal passages, tests for the ear of musician and audience alike, creepy but volatile and fascinating. Before the start of each movement conductor and soloist Storgårds aims violin and bow at his troops like he’s holding a rifle or about to grind the organ into life, he bounces and sways around on stage as he plays the solo parts with great brio. This ensemble is well up to speed, precise and energetic, leaving Storgårds free to focus on his playing duties in the busier, more demanding sections for the soloist such as some fiendishly difficult pizzicato in the second movement just after the jaunty and terrifying xylophone solo enters for some angular repartee.

The concert is closed-out by Britten’s four Sea Interludes. The melodies are instantly recognisable being staples of modern concert hall repertoire. These instrumental excerpts have a separate existence and performance history from his opera Peter Grimes. The opera is based around George Crabbe’s long poem sequence ‘The Borough’ and its titular outsider fisherman which Britten first read in 1941 whilst living in conscientious objector-dom and pacifism in California, a move also prompted by many other extensive reasons including objectionable reception of his work and the moving to the States of other artistic figures such as the writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

Some outright melody comes as a welcome relief too after Weill’s fulgent and unrelenting discord. In his orchestral writing Britten is consummate and idiosyncratic, he does mostly everything well, intricate, delicate passages of introspection and huge, swirling, impetuous moments of grandeur. There they are. Those broad, sweeping melodies, often in the strings and brass, mix and mesh with sudden, dissonances and this is decorated with rushes, pips and flurries in the woodwind. It’s urgent music laced with intent and sometimes clear-cut, often lurching changes of mood and tone, but it embraces an audience and gradually swells around the listener. The orchestra is back up to full power and the percussion section has grown too. One percussionist sits attentively by a solitary tubular bell until his moment in the spotlight and when it arrives in the second interlude ‘Sunday Morning’ he takes the hammer to it and revels in the moment. The whole orchestra in fact seems innervated and engaged; this could have something to do with Britten’s adept scoring, instrumentation and arrangement, or it could be to do with the performance of this piece being recorded for broadcast on Radio 3 the following day and the players wanting to give a good account of themselves. The playing has a clarity, precision and subtlety. As the concluding ‘Storm’ interlude rises into a huge, crashing orchestral surge and the conductor and orchestra make their final bows they are treated to their first whoops of the evening amidst delighted applause. One feels, possibly short-sightedly and presumptuously, that this might be for the two outer pieces rather than the more challenging ones in-between, but an insultingly overlooked piece like Weill’s concerto and more recently modern work from a gifted, important composer like Saariaho should be an indispensable part of any reputable orchestra’s seasonal programming.

The 2016/17 BBC Philharmonic Bridgewater Hall season continues until June 2017. Box office: 0161 907 9000.

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