Excerpts from Grieg’s Peer Gynt began the evening, featuring sugar-soft woodwind and trills on the iconic “Morning”, yearning strings on the main chromatic theme, and then ending with a percussion-heavy blast. However, the perverse decision to cut “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” (aka the Alton Towers theme tune) will have disappointed many among the sold-out Royal Albert Hall (with even the gallery packed with prommers).
Those who think of Sibelius as a straightforward 19th century nationalist will have had their views quickly turned around by the highly modern-sounding Luonnotar, featuring soprano Lise Davidsen’s expressive attack on the lyrics and breathtaking upper register. Then again, Sibelius’ popular Karelia Suite sounded camp and imperious at best, unsuccessfully underplayed at worst.
Schumann’s Cello Concerto followed, with Alban Gerhardt’s emotional solo as effortless as a conversation, and as elegant as a soliloquy. Unusually for a concerto, the soloist and first cello share a duet, and thanks to the calibre of the BBC Philharmonic this was not gimmicky, but thralling. Conductor John Storgårds oversaw the valiant attempt to make this gentle and repetitive concerto as interesting as possible.
It is tempting to say that Hindemith’s urgent Mathis der Mahler (originally banned for being “degenerate” by the Nazis) plays itself. But its daring harmony and meticulously detailed score would be nothing without the tightness of the BBC Philharmonic, especially the 60-strong bank of strings that appeared to breathe as one under Storgårds’ baton. Part of the Classical for Starters collection of proms, this beautifully curated evening drew a deserved roar of approval all the way up to the rafters.