BBC Philharmonic, conducted Nicholas Collon; The Bridgewater Hall, 21 October 2017.

For their latest outing at the Bridgewater Hall the BBC Philharmonic offer up a diverse and intriguing program that allows different sections of the orchestra to shine before they come back together in full force for a glorious and powerful performance of probably the most well-known symphonic work ever written. The pieces in order of performance are Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, Sibelius’ Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 87 and 89, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and finally, you guessed it, one of classical music’s big guns, Beethoven Symphony No. 5.

Looking around the audience inside, as Storm Brian intermittently hurtles across the city, it’s pleasing to see a highly mixed demographic browsing in the gift shop, queuing to place umbrellas in the cloakroom, buying drinks at the bars and then settling in for the performance. There are empty seats around the auditorium which is not good to see, perhaps this is a consequence of the adverse weather, or that is the hope, since the place should be packed out to see one of the best performing and recording orchestras in the country.

Conductor Nicholas Collon wields the baton tonight and proves a lively and bouncy presence on the podium all evening. He cuts a lithe, ever so slightly disheveled figure up there. His gestures and direction are very precise but expressive and alert.

Opening proceedings is Stravinsky’s captivating music from the ballet Apollon Musagète. Calling for a string orchestra 34 instrumentalists strong the score was composed between 1927-28 with choreography for the original performance by George Balanchine and costumes designed no less than by Coco Chanel. The BBC Philharmonic offer a mesmerizing and beautiful interpretation of Stravinsky’s vision of Apollo guiding three muses, Terpsichore, Calliope and Polyhymnia (reduced from the usual nine for practical and musical purposes) to Parnassus.

The string section gleams and shimmers, the phrasing is lyrical and sensitive, perfectly evoking the mythological images of classical antiquity that Stravinsky had in mind. The music overall is smooth and lilting for Stravinsky, devoid of his often staggered rhythms and themes and spiking dynamic contrasts although very occasionally there are small, subtle hints of these, grating bowing in the cellos for instance roughly half-way through; in-keeping with this, Collon draws poised and extremely graceful phrasing from his string instrumentalists. The influence of Jean-Baptiste Lully on Stravinsky also has a bearing on the richness here by way of the more consistent interest in lively or deep melody. Quite a few passages have a positively French Baroque feel as the ghost of counterpoint and basso continuo emerges.

Removed from the ballet itself perhaps the score being strings only, despite its obvious lusciousness and charms, is of a slightly too long duration for individual performance since it lacks the range of textures that so tellingly define and thoroughly captivate in Stravinsky’s other ballet music for full symphony orchestra. However it is a piece of serene melodic jewels throughout that uses the different and available inflections of string instruments masterfully, and it is absolutely worth the wait to hear the final yearning and mysterious measures.

Sibelius’ Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 87 and 89 follow. These pieces are perfectly compact all coming in at only a few minutes duration and offer a more bite-size window into the violin concert repertoire. This is a good piece of scheduling after the prolonged period of concentration on string instruments required by the previous work. The soloist is Canadian violinist James Ehnes. He has a tendency to shoot upwards with a flourish of body and bow at the conclusion of each one. Ehnes’ playing is reflective and maybe slightly stand-offish, but perhaps that is down to this being the frosty, aloof Sibelius more than anything. He amply articulates the sheer variety of these consistently but differently engaging pieces with gutsy playing and unabashed authority. Composed between 1916-17 the Humoresques work through a range of moods and atmospheres and explore quite different techiniques such as a mazurka like arrangment in the first and a perpetuum mobile in the second one. The orchestra subtly but surely underpin the soloist and assist in bringing out each Humoresque’s particular characteristics.

Ehnes plays the final movement from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major as an encore, announcing it to the audience before he begins. It’s dazzling playing that shows his range in terms of violin repertoire from different musical eras. The intonation, expression and projection are absolute dynamite attracting envious, admiring glances from orchestra and audience alike.

More Stravinsky opens the second half. This time it is the orchestra’s wind and brass sections who are the focus as they play his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. It would be very harsh to call this an amuse-bouche before the evening’s main course of lovely Ludwig van is served up, but it’s difficult not to feel that such a piece of short duration (roughly 10 minutes) was slotted in here in order to not keep the audience in expectation too much longer.

The work is dedicated to Debussy who had died in 1918, two years prior to the piece’s composition. Initially the piece was not well-received attracting sneers and disdain at its premiere at Queen’s Hall, London. Of course, at this particular moment in history all forms of art throughout Europe were undergoing significant and striking shifts in technique, form and aesthetics. Jonathan Cross has made reference to this mentioning Stravinsky’s possible debt to Cubism in this work: ‘The musical/rhythmic aspects of Cubism in general and Picasso’s Nude in particular, and the obvious objective, almost constructivist aspects of the Symphonies immediately suggest a similar aesthetic (remembering, though, that the Symphonies was produced some ten years after the Picasso drawing.)’ Certainly, the opening, peeling and slurred call in the flutes and clarinet is uniquely and unmistakeably of Stravinsky’s own devising. The alternating sharp and softened rhythmic and melodic figures that occur throughout the piece and within the musical space can be linked to that style. The music seems to be both sharply in focus but also concurrently blurred.

The opening figure is repeated throughout the work both as a melodic and rhythmic carbon-copy. As it is developed brass burble away or blast semi-discordant fanfares as the woodwind offer flurries and much commotion at a higher pitch. Bunched to the right of the stage and set slightly back, the BBC Philharmonic’s wind and brass sections work hard and give a bright, eloquent and lucid performance that more than earns its place in this half alongside the much more celebrated and widely heard piece that will follow this.

On to main course then. Probably one of the most significant challenges to a conductor and orchestra is how to make such a famous and oft-performed symphony as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 distinctive and fresh again. Tonight a major way in which this is achieved is through having the entire orchestra stand up as they play it (apart from cellos, basses and timpani of course, who can’t). This surprise turn of events necessitates a prolonged period of non-musical activity on-stage as practically everything on it is rearranged and adjusted by the stagehands who scurry back and forth from backstage as a few musicians hang around in the wings. Contrabassoons are heaved on and a new position is set up for the lone piccolo player. After quite a few minutes each section’s music stands are at the correct eye-level and the inside ranks of string players have stepped onto slightly raised black platforms.

The wait heightens expectations and piques the audience’s curiosity. When it becomes apparent what is happening people rush to take photos with their phones before the piece begins. The fact that the orchestra is standing provides a neat visual aspect and angle on what is a gripping and emotive interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It’s somehow clearer and easier to see the orchestra as a musical unit but also as many individuals en masse.

Collon sets a brisk tempo in an intense and punchy first movement and soon the reasons behind the enduring critical and mass popularity of the symphony become clear again. There is perhaps no composer like Beethoven who combines melodic and rhythmic sensibility (i.e. sheer, unabashed tunefulness) intellectual profundity, and emotional weight. Somehow in his music, the later symphonies in particular, these things just entangle to hit a sweetspot of musical power and creative capacity. The effect on both the audience and the orchestra is visibly profound.

The bold, forceful themes that are meshed in each movement are handled with clarity and finesse by the orchestra who suffuse them equally with the necessary grandeur and introspection; the balance and dynamic loading is outstanding with the swells and dives throughout attacked with zest and backed off from with consideration. In the andante second movement the feel is lyrical and expressive but this gives way in the third movement scherzo to reawakening agitation and fury. The fourth movement is full of muscle and potency, the trombonists prominently wielding their instruments back right, emptying them of spit during rests in readiness for the next massively asserted blast of the movement’s principle theme with thunderous timpani before the interest transitions into strings and the rest of the orchestra.

At the conclusion of the work people are standing and some tissues fall in appreciation from the upper sections. Leaving aside the pop appeal of this symphony things bode extremely well for the upcoming concerts by the BBC Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall and also at Media City. As demonstrated by this concert, their musical interests in terms of both space and time are indiscriminate and pleasingly dissimilar.

Simon Haworth

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