Kristjan Järvi’s Nielsen and Sibelius at London’s Barbican

Nielsen, Sibelius and Grieg: Treblos Wind Quintet (Chloe Vincent (flute), Nary Noden (oboe), Hannah Lawrance (clarinet), Sebastian Charlesworth (bassoon), Joseph Ryan (horn)), Samantha Crawford (soprano), Robert Elibay-Hartog (baritone), Gavin Roberts (piano), Roman Simovic (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Kristjan Järvi, Barbican Hall, London, 7.4.2011 (BBr)

Nielsen: Wind Quintet, op.43 (1922)
Sibelius: Vilse, op.17/4 (1891/1904)
Flickan kom, op.37/5 (1898/1904)
Hertig Magnus, op.57/6 (1909)
Aus banger Brust, op.50/4 (1906)
Die stille Stadt, op.50/5 (1906)
I systrar, I bröder, op.86/6 (1916)
Kyssens hopp, op.13/2 (1891/1892)
Svarta rosor, op.36/1 (1899)
Nielsen: Aladdin – suite (1918/1919)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47 (1903 rev 1905)
Grieg: Peer Gynt, op.23 (1875, rev 1885, rev 1901)

Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, “the delectable Wind Quintet” as Robert Simpson, quite correctly, has it, is one of his most appealing works; it radiates warmth and beauty. The Treblos Quintet, formed as recently as 2007, gave a well-considered performance tonight, made all the more winning by its intelligent reading of the variations of the finale. The work was written for the Copenhagen Wind Quintet (Paul Hagemann, Svend Christian Felumb, Aage Oxenvad, Knud Lassen and Hans Sørensen) – it was for these players that Nielsen intended his five Concertos for wind instruments, of which only the Flute and Clarinet Concertos were completed – and the variations in the Quintet give each player the chance to show his personality; exactly what Nielsen intended for his Concertos. By highlighting the pauses between each variation we were allowed a clearer view of the individuality of the original musician. This was a very fine performance indeed and was most welcome, reminding one, if we needed reminding, what we are missing by its only occasional live performances.

Sibelius’s songs are amongst the best-kept secrets of Finnish music and, like the equally unknown songs of Carl Nielsen and Rachmaninov, there is a vast, and satisfying, body of work still to be explored. Sibelius wasn’t happiest when writing for the piano, his solo works generally leave one dissatisfied, for they are not particularly well written and the material isn’t up to the standard of his bigger, and major, works. The accompaniments to his songs, however, display a good grasp of piano technique and provide an excellent foundation for the construction of the vocal lines. His songs range from the simple evocation of a silent town lying in a valley, to the passionate outpouring of a girl’s admission to her mother about her unfaithful lover – Flickan kom, which is almost a tone poem in its own right. Samantha Crawford and Robert Elibay-Hartog gave four songs each, showing a perfect vocal control and a real feeling for the music. They were both perfectly partnered by Gavin Roberts. This show, by students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, was more than just an aperitif to the main event, it was a vital showcase for some exciting young musicians.

Carl Nielsen’s score for Adam Oehlenschlæger’s Aladdin makes an attractive seven- movement suite, but the music is not typical of the composer and it isn’t in the same class as his incidental music for Holger Drachmann’s Hr. Oluf han rider [Sir Oluf Rides] (1906), but it is better known, and regularly recorded, hence this performance. The music is brilliantly orchestrated and very colourful. Järvi directed a straightforward performance which was exuberant and, at times, quite thrilling. But the work isn’t without its moments of repose and there was some delicious, and delicate, string playing in ‘Aladdin’s Dance’, the second movement. Much has been made of ‘The Market in Ispahan’ because Nielsen has the various sections of the orchestra playing in different tempi and metres, attempting to convey the bustle of a bazaar. Unfortunately, whilst this might have seemed daring, and very evocative in 1919, like the once equally startling ‘Demons’ Chorus’ in The Dream of Gerontius, it now sounds very old hat and somewhat embarrassing. Despite this, I cannot complain, for it was good to hear the work in concert and I doubt it will be given again in a hurry. This performance made a nice addendum to the series of Nielsen’s Symphonies that the LSO is giving with Sir Colin Davis.

Because Julia Fischer had sustained a hand injury her place was taken by Roman Simovic, and his performance of the Sibelius Concerto was forthright, to say the least. The long first movement perfectly suited Simovic and Järvi and they treated it as a large, and portentous, virtuoso display, and not just for the soloist. However, exhilarating as this was, it was relentless and by the end my ears were tired from the continual aural onslaught. The slow movement suffered from a lack of subtlety, delicacy and pianissimo, while the finale – Tovey’s “Polonaise for polar bears” – lacked humour, being far too po-faced. The performance pleased a full house but we were cheated in terms of the interpretation, which in general was unpleasant and lacking in good judgement.

Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is known through the two suites he prepared in 1888 and 1891, but these eight pieces are only the tip of the musical iceberg of 26 movements, from which we heard 21 tonight, given in chronological order. In a blind test many would be hard pressed to recognize Grieg as the composer, for much of this music is wild and exuberant, with only a few of the pieces offering repose and charm. Järvi gave the work as a continuous whole with very few pauses between the sections and this allowed for a very satisfying experience. My one quibble is that in the few moments of peacefulness – such as the ‘The Death of Åse’, ‘Anitra’s Dance’ and ‘Solveig’s Song’- Järvi didn’t cut the number of strings and gave them as richly sumptuous offerings, instead of the winsome utterances they so obviously are. But overall, and graced with intensely committed playing from the LSO, this was a fascinating experience and a satisfying performance.

Bob Briggs