Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Last year’s Proms season opened with Sibelius’s Second Symphony from a BBC orchestra and a Finnish maestra,, and this year’s Proms season continued with Sibelius’s Second Symphony from a BBC orchestra and a Finnish maestra (near-contemporaries, too). Eva Ollikainen (currently heading up the Iceland Symphony Orchestra) conducted Sibelius Two in an unfussy way, reminding in places of Robert Kajanus’s recording, which carries the composer’s imprimatur. Her concern for clarity, dynamics and direction was self-evident, the greatest passion reserved for the loudest passages; the attacca into the second movement and its timpani roll was effective (a few conductors have done this, Charles Groves, Charles Mackerras, Kurt Sanderling, in concerts from yesteryear anyway), music of volatility, which Ollikainen underlined within a relatively flowing tempo, and the subsequent Scherzo traded speed for articulation, the Trio shapely, and then with a transition into the Finale that avoided spectacle, the movement itself playing-down rhetoric but not concluding grandeur. Maybe it didn’t quite add up, and was a little cool in places; however, the BBC Philharmonic was totally responsive.

Another day, another Elgar Cello Concerto, music I no longer listen to out of choice; quite happy with a couple of admirable recordings, if needed – Janos Starker/Leonard Slatkin, and Steven Isserlis/Paavo Järvi – and with fond memories of this account, As for the current rendition, Kian Soltani opened impassionedly and continually impressed with his poise, spot-on intonation and unaffected phrasing; also his dexterity and eloquence; and there was much to admire in the alert and sympathetic accompaniment. Soltani offered an extra, a Ukrainian folksong, ‘Lovely Minka’, as arranged by the cellist with a string orchestra as backdrop. It stays in the mind.

Opening the concert was the premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s eighteen-minute ARCHORA (BBC co-commission), inspired by “subterranean energy” and creative force – an initially powerful piece full of rasping low brass, col legno effects, glissandos, drum thumps, eerie twisting lines (maybe too reliant on such things), and a sense of theatre throughout if without anything distinctive beyond a paintbox of colours and orchestral paraphernalia (not unlike previous pieces of hers; please see Comments), which while certainly imaginative and image-creating – during ARCHORA’s latter stages I ran to isolation, icebergs and the sort of flapping birds that wouldn’t make cute household pets – doesn’t issue an invitation to explore the work further any time soon (however painstakingly and complexly notated) as structurally and thematically (perhaps not paramount concerns for this scenic-minded composer) it seemed ‘all there’ in this single (excellent) performance.

Indeed, given the quality of playing throughout the concert, now that we know officially there is a vacancy, maybe Eva Ollikainen is on the shortlist to be the next Chief Conductor of the BBC Phil.

BBC Philharmonic & Omer Meir Wellber.