Beautiful Tones and Towering Drama as Mozart meets Tchaikovsky

SwedenSweden  Rehnqvist, Mozart and Tchaikovsky: Göteborgs Symfoniker (Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra), Martin Fröst (clarinet), Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Gothenburg Concert Hall, 15.09.2011 (NS)

Karin Rehnqvist, Tiger Touch
W. A. Mozart, Clarinet Concerto
P. I. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 Pathétique

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s (GSO) second programme of the season was one of contrasts: a world premiere commissioned for Gustavo Dudamel’s 30th birthday, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with an outstanding soloist, and Tchaikovsky’s last and possibly greatest symphony. After their concerts in Gothenburg, the GSO took this programme on tour to Oslo and Reykjavik (where they had the honour of being the first foreign orchestra to perform inReykjavik’s new concert hall). Judging by the quality of Thursday’s performance, the Norwegians and Icelanders were in for a treat.

Karin Rehnqvist’s Tiger Touch is a nine-minute piece that combines Swedish and Latin American influences. The result is quite successful, and Mr Dudamel certainly seemed to enjoy conducting it. The best music is early on, with an interesting opening fanfare and a sophisticated dance rhythm based on the polska (a Swedish folk dance). Ms Rehnqvist creates a sort of jungle atmosphere with a large and active percussion section and roars from the brass. The piece was well played and warmly received by the audience.

Having heard Martin Fröst previously in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, I had high expectations for the (admittedly very different) Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Mr Fröst has worked with early music specialists and chose to play a basset clarinet, which has a larger range than the modern clarinet and was the instrument Mozart wrote the piece for. Mr Fröst’s instrument was also softer (in both tone and dynamic) than its modern counterpart.

The result was spellbinding. Mr Fröst’s playing was so tender that he could almost have been holding a baby rather than a musical instrument. The excellent acoustic of the hall and the sensitive accompaniment by the orchestra meant that every note was heard and the balance was perfect. These qualities were on particular display in the second movement, where Mr Dudamel achieved a slow tempo without ever losing momentum and the GSO produced a beautiful sound, despite playing at the quiet end of their dynamic range. The third movement was almost playful, with fantastic playing by Mr Fröst especially in the quiet sections.

Mr Fröst’s encore was a special treat: the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, accompanied by the section leaders of the GSO’s strings (and no conductor). Suddenly it was as if we were in a chamber concert; the playing was certainly of that standard. Mr Fröst played Bach’s arpeggios while the string soloists played Gounod’s melody.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are part of Mr Dudamel’s core repertoire and the performance of the Sixth Symphony lived up to his reputation as a conductor in every way. He maintained a sense of line and momentum, with very little rubato; Tchaikovsky’s music is passionate enough already without a conductor trying to lay it on even thicker. The 5/4 dance rhythm of the second movement was captivating, aided by the wonderfully lush sound of the GSO’s string section. The opening of the third movement bubbled with suppressed excitement and the movement’s main theme was bursting with life. We were thrown straight into the fourth movement with almost no break after the third (which cut short the inevitable claps after the finale-that-isn’t-a-finale).

Immediately the emotional picture was different and the orchestra poured their hearts out. Their expressive playing made the performance special – in the magical ending of the first movement, the lilting second movement and most of all the anguished final movement. This emotional intensity was never diminished even in the softest parts of the music. It is difficult to describe such a performance in more detail; suffice to say that the audience, including myself, were deeply moved.

Niklas Smith