Right from the moment I opened the Edinburgh International Festival programme back in March, one of the things that had me most excited was the two concert visit of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of their chief conductor Sakari Oramo. The team have a wonderful chemistry and provided electrifying evenings on both their previous visits, for Bruckner's 1st symphony in 2006 and a programme of Janáček and Sibelius in 2008.
This time round they presented something a little more challenging. Well, I say challenging; in point of fact the programme was nothing of the sort, but Nielsen is, it seems, enough to send a large chunk Edinburgh's conservative audience running for the hills. More fool them: the mix of Wagner and Nielsen was extremely effective and the latter absolutely electrifying.
The first programme was particularly interesting since it represented, a rarity this, one where every work on the programme was new to me (I'm not sure how Nielsen has managed to pass me by, indeed, two concerts later I'm utterly baffled - I knew of him of course, but had never really explored his work). They opened with Nielsen's Helios overture. Beginning with a beautifully soft cello chord, it gradually built up, first with the horns (albeit with the odd cracked note). It grew and sparkled and shone through some superbly and wonderfully textured orchestral playing before fading away to those cellos and then silence again.
Rather than opting for the more commonly heard Wagner chunks that one hears all the time, Oramo had chosen the Wesendonck Lieder, for which he was joined by mezzo-soprano Petra Lang. The combination of her fine and rich voice, together with her stage presence and the drama she brought, made for a captivating performance. Beneath her, Oramo and the orchestra provided sensitive and well played accompaniment. It was nice too to hear shades of Wagner's later work, such as the theme of Im Treibhous, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the opening of act 3 of Tristan.
They had, though, saved the best until last, with Nielsen's 4th symphony, The Inextinguishable. It was, to say the least, electric, with climaxes that where absolutely fearsome, especially the climactic battle between the two sets of timpani. At times they seemed to shake the very foundations of the Usher Hall (just as well they've recently been reinforced). But what marked this was not simply the volume, but the extreme delicacy they displayed in the quieter passages and how naturally Oramo moved his players between the two. The overall effect was searingly dramatic and absolutely thrilling.
The audience certainly seemed to think so and refused to let them leave until we'd got two encores. I'm not a huge fan of the practice, particularly after such a piece, and yet they played the two pieces of Sibelius (they are, after all, as Oramo said introducing them, a Finnish Orchestra, so they ought to play us some Finnish music) with such elan that you could hardly object. Valse Triste was followed by the Scene with Cranes.
As if that wasn't enough, they were back the next night for more. This time the first half was given over entirely to Wagner and some of his better known works. They began with the Meistersinger overture, marked by the orchestra's superb string tone and rich brass. Indeed, much credit to Anders Hauge who didn't put a foot wrong throughout what was a very long and prominent blow in the tuba part.
They were then joined by bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo for two further exerts. First came Die Frist ist um from Der fliegende Hollander. Oramo and the orchestra were superb, delivering a thrillingly dramatic account of what, to me, does not always seem Wagner's finest music. Unfortunately Uusitalo was the weak link. His tone had a rough edge and the voice sounded like it had been overworked. At times he struggled to be heard, though in fairness Oramo wasn't the sensitive accompanist he might have been here. Then again, had he been, the wonderfully orchestral climaxes might have been sacrificed and I'm not certain anything as good would have taken their place. It was much the same for Wotan's Farewell from Die Walkure where once again the highlights were orchestral, especially the wonderful sparkle that manifested shortly before the magic fire flickered into life.
But, just as on the previous evening, the real highlight came from the pen of Carl Nielsen in the form of his 5th symphony. As with the 4th what stood out most was the way he managed to move between earth shattering climaxes and pianissimos so quite you could have heard a pin drop (or, indeed, the stomach of the man in front rumble). Nowhere was this more the case than after the magnificent climax at the end of the first part which was followed by some incredibly delicate violin playing above which Christoffer Sundqvist provided a perfectly judged performance of a tricky clarinet solo. The drum battle of the 4th had a worth successor in the contrast between the timpani and the snare drum, the latter moving offstage, well placed, and fading away beautifully. Yet it was those breathtaking climaxes that dominated, and the superb control Oramo exerted over them. It was an experience I will not soon forget.
Jonathan Mills is to be applauded for this fine piece of programming. I hope we see more of both Nielsen and the team of Oramo and his Finnish Orchestra at future festivals. Until then, let us hope that someone has the sense to get them into the recording studio to set their electrifying interpretations of these pieces onto disc.