mon 26/02/2024

Dariescu, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - sounds of unquenchable optimism | reviews, news & interviews

Dariescu, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - sounds of unquenchable optimism

Dariescu, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - sounds of unquenchable optimism

Conductor is his own violin soloist in one of two UK premieres

Two roles in one: John Storgårds as simultaneous soloist and conductor with the BBC PhilharmonicEmma Naylor

John Storgårds found himself literally facing both ways for the third item on the BBC Philharmonic’s programme on Saturday: towards the audience, with one music stand in front of him, as he played the solo violin role in Sebastian Fagerlund’s Helena’s Song, and frequently turning 180 degrees, with the full score in view, to conduct at the same time.

It was one of two BBC commissioned works (in this case co-commissioned with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) receiving their UK premieres in the concert – the other was the rather longer Shades of Unbroken Dreams by James Lee III, a piano concerto in which the soloist was Alexandra Dariescu.

If there was a golden thread running through the entire programme, I guess it was unquenchable optimism. It may be in short supply in many places right now, but music has often expressed it in the past and can do again. It began with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and ended with Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable”.

Copland’s Fanfare launched the evening in fine style as Storgårds and his brass (and percussion) players gave three distinctly different levels of dynamic and intensity to its opening salvoes and finished on a peak of tone that should prove a good test for your equipment if you want to hear this on the radio next month.

Then there was a long pause for the rest of the orchestra to enter and tune up – perhaps needed for the ears to re-adjust. Shades of Unbroken Dreams is described as a piano concerto, and it follows the format of three movements, with the middle one tender and song-like, but there’s so much going on in the orchestra in the outer movements that at times it seems more of a concerto for orchestra with piano obbligato. It’s immensely attractive, pulling a whole range of Romantic-style levers (lovely wind and horn solos, bravura solo passages, big triumphant conclusion) and a kaleidoscope of other effects along the way: cantus firmus textures in the opening, steady, purposeful rhythms very clearly present, scurrying woodwind and strings figures, open-air bird-like sounds and horn calls, peals of bells, tambourine and sleigh bells… so you might think it needed no other justification than its own intrinsic inventiveness.

But in fact it has an explicit verbal programme, if you read the composer’s note, as well. It’s inspired by Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and the composer says it’s about the idea of social justice and equality for all men and women, the first movement (subtitled “Voice Merging”) evoking a dream and seeking a future of resolution and equality, the second (“Prophetic Voice”) representing a humble plea for change, and the third (“Dynamic Spectacle”), based on the phrases "Let Freedom Ring" and "Free at Last", finishing as a climactic romp.

Alexandra Dariescu appearing with the BBC Philharmonic cr Emma NaylorRomanian-born Alexandra Dariescu (pictured left) was a gold medal winner at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2007 and it’s been a pleasure to note her starry career ever since, garnering awards, making recordings and appearing in the world’s top concert halls; she now she teaches at the RNCM, too. Her undoubted brilliance was not entirely audible in the hall (it may be different on the radio) alongside some of the orchestra writing in this piece, because it was obliterated by the noise they made, but there was evidence enough of it in the outer movements, and in the much more intimate, near-Chopinesque textures of the middle one she played its melodies with winning charm, like a ray of sunshine in a wintry world.

Fagerlund’s essay for violin and orchestra is based on a scene in his opera, Stilleben, whose premiere was conducted by Storgårds, and according to the composer he jumped at the idea of making this solo piece from it. It opens with a texture of percussion, sustained strings, decorative woodwind, piano chords and timpani underlay, into which the violin creeps almost imperceptibly at first. The solo line begins to soar on its second entry, becomes increasingly animated and leads the orchestra in a crescendo before everything falls back to a unison, and then a farewell from the violin, fading down to a dying finger tremolo. It delivered, in its opening and closing, an oasis of restraint among the extroversion of so much else in the evening’s music.

Because extroversion was very much the theme of Nielsen’s “The Inextinguishable” symphony, in Storgårds’ hands. That was entirely a plus point: it’s about the force of life itself, said the composer, and the urgency and energy, both striding and strident, of the opening movement was compelling, with thrilling contrasts of dynamic and more magnificent brass playing. The sound of the wind players was completely charming in the second movement, and when it came to the strings’ turn in the slow third one, they were passionate and eloquent (Yuri Torchinsky leading).

There was a beautiful moment in the violin, viola and celli quartet (and the horn solo), before the build-up to the finale and its famous and thunderous duo for timpani. Storgårds conducted the gentler passages with sensitivity and clarity, as much as the big ones with impact and majestic effect, in one of the most impressive readings of the piece I’ve ever heard.

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