Four Last Songs with Camilla Nylund

NorwayNorway Dutilleux, Strauss, Mozart: Camilla Nylund (soprano), Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor), Oslo Philharmonic, Oslo Concert Hall, 23.3.2012. (JFL)

Dutilleux: Mystére de l’instant
R.Strauss: Four Last Songs
Mozart: Symphony No.39

Jukka-Pekka Sara, Principal Conductor of the WDR SO Cologne and Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic

When Marin Alsop and Paul Lewis were the attractions on the program of the Oslo Philharmonic (with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto to add to the star power), the ungainly Oslo Concert Hall was sold out to the last, expanded seat. A week later Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Camilla Nylund headed the bill, with music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting, and the attendance was scarcely half as large. They missed out, for starters, on Henri Dutilleux’ atmpospheric, prettily meandering Mystére de l’instant: A 15 minute work for strings, dulcimer, and percussion that slips and slides toward its ambivalent conclusion with several neat, small solos for the first desks and timpanist along the way. Easy on the ears, nothing conservative patrons need to run away from, but nothing—admittedly—that will have tickets flying off the shelf. This combination made, for all the preceding beauty, looking forward to the concluding Mozart Symphony—No.39—difficult. It’s very easy to underestimate how challenging it is to play Mozart, even late, heavier Mozart, after a bill of 20th century modernish/romantic fare. It’s difficult enough for most modern philharmonic orchestras to play Mozart well when their musical blood has been coagulated by too much ‘oomph-music’, and Viennese classics coming out like bad-habit Schumann. Camilla Nylund from the Finnish-Swedish town Vaasa (named after the Swedish king of crisp-bread fame) has delighted me in Munich and Salzburg and on record in the past. Her Four Last Songs continued in that line of pleasing memories. She swam herself free after a forcefully determined “Spring”, where her voice had narrow, piercing moments. Her voice is not a lush instrument, and carries very easily over the orchestra without being forced. In her more malleable lower register, at its best display in “September”, she can add just that hint of velvet that makes Strauss so seductive. An air of propriety gave way to gorgeousness with the last lines of “September”, leading into a round and homogenous “At Bedtime”. The now infamous Marimba ringtone’s disruption was only brief and caused no scandal… but the following highlight of the mini-song cycle, the last stanza of “At Bedtime”, was played as if the orchestra was not aware of the rarified beauty this moment contained. To put a positive spin on it: it wasn’t milked for its unique beauty. It fit the greater scheme of the orchestra’s performance: not perfect, very respectably, and a bit anonymously—much line with past experiences.

Happily it wasn’t Mozart-as-Schumann in this case. And while it also wasn’t light and tip-toed Mozart à la Freiburg Baroque Orchestra or even Concertebouw / Josef Krips, it was a thoroughly engaging, crisply driven affair, combining sprightliness and body and energetic all the way to the finale. Sarastre steered his musicians with unfussy aplomb that made, individual kinks apart, for the best playing of the night and possibly for the best playing I have heard of the Oslo Philharmonic yet.

Jens F. Laurson