A Spellbinding Concert in Karlstad

SwedenSweden Sibelius, R. Strauss and Elgar: Wermland Opera Orchestra, Henrik Schaefer (conductor), AnnLouice Lögdlund (soprano), Karlstad CCC, 18.10.2012 (NS)

Jean Sibelius: Pohjola’s Daughter
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations

The Wermland Opera Orchestra had chosen an unexpected combination of pieces for this orchestral concert, but the programme had a logic which was brought out by superb playing by the orchestra. The music took the audience on a journey from the supernatural (Pohjola’s Daughter, a symphonic poem based on Finnish mythology) to the natural and human (Elgar’s wonderful musical portraits of his friends in the Enigma Variations) via meditations on the boundary between the two worlds in Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

Pohjola’s Daughter was captivating from the start, with the orchestra’s string section producing a wonderfully dark sound. The pianissimo playing was exceptional, most of all in the final bars.

The Four Last Songs were performed as well as I have ever heard them. Each song started perfectly and ended with a great sense of peace and repose. AnnLouice Lögdlund’s diction was very clear, allowing the audience to follow Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff’s poetry almost as if it was being read. Her voice was every bit as good as it was in the Wermland Opera’s Ring Cycle last summer: warm, radiant and with a seemingly effortless pianissimo even on high notes. It would be difficult to imagine a performance more sensitive to the poetry of the song texts.

The orchestral playing was also outstanding. Henrik Schaefer’s conducting was perfectly paced and hand in glove with Ms Lögdlund. The orchestra’s dynamics were beautiful, never abrupt and never swamping the soloist. The solo parts, in particular the horn, violin and flute solos, were lovely.

The Enigma Variations were performed with a real sense of the personalities of the people depicted, and of Elgar’s humour and musical playfulness. The programme note helpfully introduced each variation with a sentence about the person and personality it describes. Picking out any particular performance from the orchestra for special praise is difficult as the level was so uniformly high, but the cello solo in variation twelve (dedicated to Basil Nevinson, an amateur cellist) was wonderfully expressive and perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek in its melancholy (could any friend of someone as cheerful as Elgar be so sad?).

Mr Schaefer’s conducting was excellent again, holding the piece together with a clear sense of line. There is always a risk with the Enigma Variations that a performance becomes episodic as the orchestra performs one variation at a time, but there was not a hint of that in this concert.

The concert hall is in a dual purpose congress and culture centre and seats 1600 people, a remarkably ambitious size for such a small city. While the balconies were not full, the stalls were almost sold out and occupied by what seemed to be a largely local audience. The acoustic is perhaps slightly too reverberant, but I only noticed that in the more boisterous passages of the Enigma Variations. With an orchestra this good there is good reason for music-lovers to consider making a trip to Karlstad.

Niklas Smith