Concert of the Year (so far): Brahms and Wagner played at Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm

SwedenSweden  Brahms, Wagner – Baltic Sea Festival: Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Victoria Mullova, violin, Nina Stemme, soprano – Berwald Hall, Stockholm, 3.9.2011 (GF)

The Baltic Sea Festival is firmly established as one of the leading classical music festivals inScandinavia. Due to other activities I was only able to hear one of the concerts, but it was a true highlight. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1995, frequently returns to his old orchestra, at least during the Baltic Sea Festival, of which he is now Artistic Director. Having heard him conduct this orchestra on numerous occasions, I have noted the instinctive rapport between the musicians and the conductor and this concert was no exception.

Juxtaposing two German composers who were opposite poles during the second half of the 19th century was illuminating and perspective-building: Johannes Brahms, the classicist with his roots in Beethoven and representing what is sometimes labelled ‘absolute music’ versus Wagner, the barnstormer and explorer. But Brahms was no conservative old fogey; he realized the greatness and the potential of Wagner while sticking to his ideal in his own compositional work. Both pieces on the programme this evening were from the same period, the 1870s, and Salonen’s approach to each was quite distinct. The Brahms violin concerto was held within a certain restraint, balanced and to my ears slightly cool. Victoria Mullova, technically brilliant, adhered to this approach. I have heard more fiery readings of the concerto, notably by eighty-year-old Nathan Milstein at the Barbican in 1983, where James Loughran became so engrossed in the palpable tension that he lost grip on his baton, which flew like a projectile into the Hallé Orchestra. That was white heat Brahms playing; Salonen and Mullova were more temperate. I enjoyed the performance, where the finale had the right rhythmic vitality, but I missed some of the exuberance of Milstein and Loughran.

After the interval I got my fill of intensity. In the excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Salonen and the orchestra were truly on their toes. The horn section was magnificent, the build-up from the almost inaudible dawn to the apex of the Rhine Journey, with the waves of theRhine pulsating like life itself. The off-stage horn calls from Siegfried carried through the lightly textured orchestra – Wagner was a masterful tone painter – and the jubilant hymn that is the incarnation of optimism, rang out with a force and glory that had at least this listener sitting there totally overwhelmed. Against such potent music making, the Brahms concerto tended to pale.

The dark and ill-boding funeral march that followed attacca sent cold shivers down my back, ominous and threatening, reminding me that I once used this music to illustrate German bombers during WW2 in a lecture on that subject, playing the opening of the music at half-speed. There is no other orchestral music that goes so directly to my heart!

And the crowning glory was till to come: the immolation scene with the incomparable Nina Stemme. In the Royal Opera’s Ring a few years ago, she was Sieglinde. Today, when that production is revived, which it certainly should be, Stemme is the natural choice as Brünnhilde. Comparisons are of course unavoidable. Many great Brünnhildes in the past and present have been Scandinavians, Flagstad, Varnay (she was Hungarian but was actually born inStockholm), Nilsson, Dalayman and Theorin are names that come to mind, maybe also Behrens and Mödl. Of these, Stemme is closest to Flagstad, and to Mödl, with her contralto roundness. Even further back, Frida Leider should be remembered, and Stemme has acknowledged that this is the singer she sees as her model. With her perfect breath control, glowing intensity and superb diction, she is at least on the same level as any of those just mentioned. Standing ovations from the audience and great flourish from the orchestra only confirmed the greatness of her singing – but Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra were equally important pieces in this jigsaw puzzle. My concert of the year – so far!

Göran Forsling