This neatly designed programme, the second instalment in Sakari Oramo’s BBC Symphony Orchestra Sibelius cycle, embraced Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in two piano-and-orchestra works that were bookended by thirty-minute, three-movement Symphonies by contemporaneous composers, the first of which was Florent Schmitt’s final composition, completed in December 1957 (the year of Sibelius's death); Schmitt died in August the following year, aged eighty-seven, but at least he had been able to attend the premiere in Strasbourg, conducted by Charles Munch.
Schmitt’s Symphony No.2 (there isn’t a No.1, as such, yet given two other symphonic titles of his, No.2 could be No.3) exudes Gallic finesse as well as oodles of vibrancy. It certainly made a big impression here – a testimony to the excellence of the performance – in, first off, music of elegance, martial determination and caprice, the opening movement also having a joyeux quality contrasted by an enticing lyrical side, led by an oboe, that is as bittersweet as it is rapturous. Energy and colour inform this volatile Assez animé, although one might say that it (and the last movement too) can be over-scored, with too much percussion, but it’s very effective and often brilliant. The slow movement is the core of the work, beginning in the depths – soulful, introspective yet with a big expressive heart (very beautiful and affecting), closing as if in the shadows of sunset (a filmic element is palpable in this haunting music). The Finale, as angular as it is humorous, is divertissement-like, but more serious than that to emphasise the work’s overall chameleon qualities, engaging one-liners that make a whole, the listener teased along the way to an emphatic conclusion to conclude a notable ‘endgame’ piece that is also a genuine Symphony and well-worth discovering (and it is being recorded by Chandos).
César Franck’s Symphonic Variations (1885) is a notable marriage between ingenious design and captivating invention. Oramo made much of its imposing introduction, and Bavouzet conjured some wonderful expressiveness, the work’s dramatic and dreamy aspects well-catered for, if less-so the sparkle of the final section, here pushed along, rather brusque, and with a finger muddle from the pianist, that lost the insouciance of this soufflé-like delight.
Bavouzet is no stranger to either of Ravel’s Piano Concertos; the last time I heard him play the one for the Left-hand (less than a year ago) it was on a Pleyel instrument, and the year before that it was with this orchestra. Returning to a Steinway, he and Oramo conspired an edge-of-seat account, the soloist as thunderous as he was intimate, full of striking impulse, rhetoric and bravura. This, one of Ravel’s greatest masterpieces, was relentless in a positive way, nightmarish and macabre, too – harp detail highlighted, Amy Harman’s bassoon wailing (the contra gets into the act early on), and following orchestral cathartics Bavouzet sank into an expansive cadenza of privacy and purging, only for the orchestra to swell and slam the door shut: this was quite something. Bavouzet stayed with Ravel for an extra, ‘Oiseaux tristes’ (from Miroirs), delicate, fluttering, enclosed, right-hand restored.
To complete a concert of riches, a Symphony by Sibelius, the Third of his ‘magnificent seven’, in the whitest of keys and classically rigorous in construction and scoring, yet full of atmosphere and imagery. Oramo opened it with purpose, quicker than the norm and really incisive, but there was nothing inflexible, a legend seems embedded in this music, suggestive of scenes and enjoying folkloristic touches. The middle movement is marked Andante con moto, quasi allegretto – and surely invites a pulse with greater motion than what Oramo set. But wait, back in 1932, making this Symphony’s first recording, Robert Kajanus did just the same, and with the composer’s imprimatur, later emulated by Colin Davis – a seductive lilt that is very convincing, not forgetting on this occasion some very eloquent cello-playing. The Finale is explorative, gradually forming and building to a noble and resounding wrapping up, horns trilling jubilantly, the BBCSO fully responsive to its Chief Conductor’s guidance, insights and fervour.
As had been the case earlier in the evening, in church, with the BBC Singers impressing for their Chief Conductor Designate Sofi Jeannin (she is David Hill’s successor). Female voices and organ opened with César Franck’s Alleluia! (Choeur de Pâques) – suggestive of angels on high, sweet and plaintive, faith in the Lord music anticipating Fauré. Also from this period, 1860/61, selections (cello solos well-taken) from Franck’s Messe à trois voix, including the familiar ‘Panis angelicus’, preceded by the celebratory and sonorous ‘Gloria’, followed by the serene ‘Agnus Dei’. It was Franck at the end, too, ‘Quae est ista’ (with harp, double bass and organ) from Trois Offertoires, darkly contemplative and a lovely rounded melody. Ravel alternated with his Belgian-French forbear, first with Trois chansons (a cappella), robust, idyllic, nimble, and – a change of emphasis – Nancy Cole (from the Singers) and Richard Pearce did voice-and-piano for Chants populaires, sultry Spanish, come-hither French, despondent Italian and, with a mesmeric rhythm as accompaniment, questioning Yiddish. A beguiling foursome, and part of what turned out to be quite a service.