It was bold of the BBC Philharmonic to open its 75th anniversary season with a work by Bohuslav Martinu, one of several "Neglected Geniuses" the orchestra is championing, and with a conductor who is relatively little-known in the UK. The young London-trained Frenchman Ludovic Morlot, who made quite an impression with the orchestra earlier this year, has got a couple of concerts with the BBC PO this season which suggests that he may, in the future, be speeding between Manchester and his home in Lyon with some regularity.
The Czech Martinu was on holiday in Italy in 1954 when he encountered Piero della Francesca's frescoes, and, always susceptible to dreamlike atmospheres and surrealist ideas, was inspired to communicate the "peace and colour" of three of these works of art. The first of the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca illustrates the Queen of Sheba on her way to see King Solomon, producing a finely characterised musical inventiveness from Martinu.
The narrative was very much to the forefront in the fresco dealing with Emperor Constantine's vision of the cross in the skies, the strings – playing with sustained eloquence – pinpointing the moment of the heavenly revelation.
The music of the final movement has a concentrated quality, spectral visions offset by surges of lyrical ardour, similar to his sixth and best-known symphony. The players – especially the cor anglais in a haunting solo – and Morlot proved themselves unerringly sensitive to the triptych's changing moods. Martinu's intense musical language makes him a distinctive composer, although, despite this year being the fiftieth anniversary of his death, most of his 400 works remain little known.
Paul Watkins was the expressive soloist in Elgar's Cello Concerto and his interpretation was unhampered by overt sentimentality and helped by nicely judged tempi. But the performance wasn't without moments of poetic introspection, while the passages of bravura were matched in buoyancy by an orchestra on exhilarating form. The theatrical Organ Symphony by Saint-Saens made for a colourful finale. The intrepid soloist Jonathan Scott clearly enjoyed swaggering towards the finishing line in what always ends up as a prolonged and hair-raising climax, even when controlled by a conductor as structurally aware as Morlot.Reuse content