BBC Proms – Nielsen Fifth Symphony; Schumann Violin Concerto & Jörg Widmann’s Armonica – BBC Philharmonic / Storgårds

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John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Monday 1 August. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 23; Royal Albert Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Widmann Armonica (2006) [UK premiere] [Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica), Teodoro Anzellotti, (accordion)]

Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor (1853) (Thomas Zehetmair, violin)

Sibelius The Tempest – Prelude (1925)

Nielsen Symphony No.5 (1922)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.

The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.

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Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou

Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.

The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.

How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.

Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.

Richard Whitehouse

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