Monday 8 August 2011

Proms 2011 - Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic play Sibelius, Grieg and Nielsen

Note: this refers to the Radio 3 broadcast of the concert.

This is a difficult Prom to review. Our listening and emotional response to music is always affected by external events - if we come into the concert hall furious after a frustrating day at work our reaction is likely to be different than if we'd just had a pleasant and relaxing day off. Listening last night, my thoughts were often drawn elsewhere.

To go back a step or two, this was probably the Prom I was most eagerly awaiting. I have admired Sakari Oramo ever since some years ago I attended a concert he gave with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which introduced me to Sibelius via the 5th symphony. Subsequent encounters, such as a blistering Bruckner 1, some more fine Sibelius, and a thrilling introduction to Nielsen (all at the Edinburgh International Festival) have only endeared him to me further. His Sibelius recordings are among my favourites and his recent work with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (notably a survey of Schumann's symphonies) has been similarly impressive. Thus the news that he was to conduct them in a programme of Sibelius and Nielsen, not to mention the Grieg piano concerto, another favourite, was an enticing prospect to say the least.

The opening of Sibelius's 6th symphony is, for me, one of the most beautiful passages in all of music. Indeed, the whole work is replete with moments of aching beauty, especially in the outer movements. Oramo and the orchestra delivered them sublimely. Yet time and again I was drawn uneasily back to the very un-beautiful things that were going on outside in other parts of London, and to the people I know in the vicinity thereof, an unintended irony lurking within the music. Beautiful, or exciting as in the third movement, though it was, I found the music troubled me in a way it never has before. The result was a rather strange experience.

Yet to the extent such thoughts can be put aside, the performance surely was a treat. A top notch Sibelian at the height of his powers with a fine orchestral instrument at his disposal. Here is a conductor with a wonderful sense of the composer's musical line, his sweep and how visually evocative the music can be. As always with Oramo, there was plenty of energy and drama; he is not a conductor with whom there is any danger of momentum flagging. Listening to this sort of performance I wonder how it is that the composer's work can ever fall flat in lesser hands as sometimes it does. The quiet ending provided a similar beauty to opening. And, for all the same reasons, it was similarly troubling.

The main unknown for me in this concert was pianist Alice Sara Ott, the soloist for Grieg's piano concerto. In some respects we have been a little spoilt pianistically this Proms, in no small part down to Benjamin Grosvernor's superb contributions (most recently in the Britten concerto with the National Youth Orchestra on Saturday). I say this because while there was nothing bad per se about her reading, it lacked the sparkle that he might have brought, in comparison feeling earthbound. It seemed cold and lacking in poetry. It also stands poorly in comparison with the remarkable sense of freshness Stephen Hough brought to it with the RSNO earlier this year. The Stockholm Philharmonic under Oramo were generally sensitive accompanists, though the purely orchestral passages tended to underscore the passion that was lacking from Ott.

Unintended musical irony was back on show for the concert's conclusion, Nielsen's 4th symphony "The Inextinguishable". And yet, was it? For, as Oramo noted when discussing the title in a brief interview "he [Nielsen] wants to bring out the inextinguishable nature of life and how life gets over even the biggest difficulties". Nielsen, of course, was responding to something far, far worse and on an altogether different level to what's been going on in London lately, namely the horrors of the first world war. So perhaps this message of hope out of darkness was actually apt rather than ironic, the more so as it was composed in 1916. Regardless, once again my thoughts wandered. Re-listening while typing up this review, the TV is muted in the background but displaying images of Croydon ablaze.

Interestingly, by his own reckoning this is the symphony Oramo has conducted most over the last few years, and the one with which he made his Proms debut with the CBSO some twelve years ago. I didn't hear that, but with his Swedish band he delivered a rich and thrilling, and, yes, ultimately life-affirming account. Yet amid the earlier turbulence, and indeed often violence, that bright ending is some time in coming, emerging only out of the famous climactic timpani duel. As if to underscore the aptness of pairing it with the Sibelius, there were some moments of quiet beauty too, though more tinged with sorrow than anything there.

Certainly the thoughts of the audience didn't seem to be quite so errant, and by his own reckoning it was warmly received. By way of an encore, they addressed the most notable absence in this Scandinavian programme: the orchestra's home of Sweden. They did this with composer Hugo Alfvén's Shepherdess's Dance. They had great fun with it, especially the chirping wind interruptions, and it really did dance.

All in all, there was a lot of fine musicianship on display. It is to be hoped that it isn't too long before we see Oramo back on these shores (and with luck back in Edinburgh) either with this fine band or his other, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Until then, you can listen for yourself here (and I recommend that you do).


Anonymous said...

I was at this Prom, and I too was distracted by what may have been going in outside.

I didn't really know any of the pieces, though of course I recognised the Grieg once it started.

I really like the Sibelius and the Nielson - the rival timpani were superb - but the Grieg I found completely unengaging.

Anonymous said...

Having been excited by the performance of Nielsen 4 at Oramo's proms debut this was an eagerly awiated concert and it didnt disappoint. Proof that life and music can be inextinguishable despite or because of what was going on in London at the time. But why is Nielsen so rarely performed when Radio 3 and our concert halls are full of tedious repetitions of all things Mahler?!

Geoff D

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks Patrick (and for the RT).

Geoff - completely agree that we should hear Nielsen more often. When Oramo brought the FRSO for Nielsen 4&5 last year (in two concerts where they were paired with various bits of Wagner, both in fairness broadcast on R3 last September), the Usher Hall was only half full if that. It's a shame because I don't think his symphonies are inaccessible.

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