Bergen Philharmonic Galvanises Audience with Heldenleben

01/02/2013

 Delius, Grieg, R. Strauss: Christian Ihle Hadland (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 31.01.2013 (SRT)

Delius: On the Mountains
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben


Having never heard them live before, and despite the long advocacy of Andrew Litton, I don’t naturally think of the Bergen Philharmonic as being in the top rank of European orchestras. The second half of their visit to Edinburgh challenged that view, but there were some issues to overcome before we got there. The sound the orchestra makes is beautiful but problematic. There is a wonderful sheen to the brass and the winds are full of character. To my ears the strings were more mixed, though. The cellos and basses were superb, and the way they launched Heldenleben was one of the galvanising points of the evening. The violins are clean and beautiful, but to my ears they lacked presence. Bizarrely, they seemed to take a back seat in the orchestral rank and in Delius’ On the Mountains they were frequently overwhelmed by their colleagues. This held back both the Delius and the Grieg.

The performance of the Piano Concerto was orchestrally very solid, but the first movement seemed to just “happen” without a great deal of moment, something you really don’t expect from Grieg’s own orchestra. The cellos and violas were sensational at the opening of the Adagio, though, with a lush, luxuriant tone that, for once, made the most of the withdrawn sound of the muted violins. It was this movement that was most successful, not least because it played most clearly to the skills of Christian Ihle Hadland, who is far from an old school extrovert. His approach to the concerto was predominantly poetic and lyrical, even a little reticent in places, and some of the first movement climaxes failed to take off. The blend and ensemble between him and the orchestra was a little slack at times, too. Thankfully it all came together for the finale, which was exhilarating in its pace but also paused for some moments of gorgeous beauty in the second theme.

After a mixed first half I was a little nervous for the showpiece of Heldenleben, but in the event the orchestra upped their game significantly and provided an account that was taught, exciting and fully together. The strings actually began to lead here, and the moment where the hero’s theme appears on unison strings at the start of the recapitulation (if you can call it that) was really thrilling. The augmented winds also seemed to revel in their role as the critics, playing with precision and sardonic wit, and the brass and percussion took off in the battle scene. Litton, too, came into his own by pacing Strauss’s long span of music with clear judgement and an eye for incidental colour, avoiding any danger of feeling episodic. The second half opened my ears to what a great orchestra this could be; it’s just a shame that we had to wait a while to get there.

Simon Thompson

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