fri 24/05/2024

Connolly, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - beginning with a fanfare | reviews, news & interviews

Connolly, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - beginning with a fanfare

Connolly, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - beginning with a fanfare

Things both rich and rare in the season opener

Precision and attack: John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic, with leader Yuri Torchinsky and assistant leader Midori SugiyamaChris Payne

The opening concert of a new season often tends to be a statement of intent, and this was John Storgårds’ opener of the first full season since he was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. He’s hardly a newcomer to them, though, since he has been principal guest conductor (latterly chief guest) for nearly 12 years now. The mutual respect and trust are clear.

This programme, however, began with a fanfare and continued with something rich and something rare (not in that order).

The fanfare was in Janáček’s Sinfonietta, not unfamiliar as a piece to make an impression with (it’s coming back to the Bridgewater Hall later this month in a programme chosen to launch Thomas Adès’ new residency with the Hallé).

The interesting thing about Storgårds’ way of doing it was that it didn’t seem designed simply to blast us out of our seats with those opening fanfares (which return at the end of the whole work). All the BBC Phil’s precision and united attack under his baton were evident, but there was something lyrical and long-phrased audible in the music, too.

A real rhythmic stride was to come, with delightful lightness mixed in it, in the episodic andante movement (“The Castle”), and the third (“The Queen’s Monastery”) conveyed both atmosphere and the orchestra’s sound at its richest and most energy-filled. There was panache in the complexity of “The Street Leading to the Castle”, and of course a big finish with the 13 extra brass players back in the mix. Janáček may have been subverting expectations of what a “symphonic” piece should be with his creation, but in this performance it carried a sense of cohesion and balance nonetheless.

The unfamiliar and strange came with Six Orchestral Songs written by Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma (née Schindler, who we know call Alma Mahler-Werfel on account of her first and third marriages), in the arrangements by Colin and David Matthews published in 1996.

Alma’s personality, which entranced Klimt, Zemlinsky, Oskar Kokoschka and Walter Gropius as well as Gustav Mahler and Franz Werfel, is not so clearcut in her music as one might wish for, but she caught an aspect of turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna in the shifting harmonies, on the edge of tonality, that we hear in some of these songs, and the Matthews brothers wisely place the dreamy In mein Vaters Garten and the sweetly gentle miniature, Bei dir ist es traut, as the last two in their compilation.

Dame Sarah Connolly with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John StorgårdsDame Sarah Connolly (pictured above) sang them all with poise, clarity and warmth, and John Storgårds and the orchestra had their chance to shine in the rich postludes which follow the first (the strings to the fore), second (the brass, ditto) and fourth – a huge climax, like a Klimtian burst of colour and light. Licht in der Nacht was both serious, sultry and seductive, fading into gong-laden mystery, and In mein Vaters Garten – almost a ballad, with its storyline and near folk-like melody – had gentle, but pregnant, pauses. Bei dir ist es traut, perhaps inspired by the authorship of Rilke, the greatest poet of the set, has textures worthy of Gustav Mahler: a beautiful close.

After the interval we went back in time by a few years and into a convention-busting symphony of the late 19th century that has since become a favourite: Tchaikovsky’s sixth (the “Pathétique”). Whatever you think of its possible back-story, it’s entrancing music by a master of the craft, and few can avoid feeling the exhilaration of the third movement’s march (which got its little round of applause, as it always seems to, despite John Storgårds’ determination to press straight on with the finale).

The opening movement was all clarity and precision in its articulation, the strings, led by Yuri Torchinsky, making the staccati appreciable, and the softest wind tones on the limit of audibility (as they should be when marked with three, four five and six p’s). The development section brooked no sentiment, with a fast moderato speed and stabbing chords. This was to be a showpiece, not a wallow in pathos.

The cello section, led by Peter Dixon, took the lead in the 5/4 second movement with its con grazia instruction beautifully fulfilled, although as the movement went on there was less of the grazia from wind and brass and a little drag in the tempo. The march was exact and correct, with all the rests audible (if that’s not an oxymoron): it strode along as with the footfall of a mighty army, and Storgårds brought just the lightest touch on the brakes for the last reprise of the big tune – so that was another showpiece.

Then the finale: there’s mental agony behind the notes here, and I long for the day when we hear the lamenting main theme played with old-fashioned portamento and a divided layout of the two bodies of violins, to illuminate the crossing and re-crossing of their lines – and make a contrast with its return, when the texture is more conventional.

If the opening is about near-despair, that repeat may show resignation, perhaps? Here it was all about noble sorrow, not hysterical grief, which is another way of hearing the music. The richness of the string sound towards the end was still wonderful.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of former Philharmonic violinist Clare Dixon, and preceded by a lovely set played in the foyer by the first violins of the orchestra with Dina Parakhina, piano, led by Yuri Torchinsky, which formed another, much-appreciated, tribute to Clare.

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