Of Men and Mountains – and a Half Empty Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Delius, Beethoven, Strauss: Christian Ihle Hadland (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Litton (conductor), The Anvil Arts Centre, Basingstoke, 05.2. 2013  (NB)

Delius: Symphonic Poem – On the Mountains
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

If you listen very carefully and hear a faint knocking – it’s the sound of concert promoters locked away in a darkened room hitting their heads against a wall.

The superb Anvil Arts Centre is a perfect venue to hear a great international orchestra under their principal conductor, well-known and much respected in the South of England and beyond, playing a programme that was as accessible as it was interesting as it was brilliantly performed.  So why an audience of barely 50%?

Compared to the Staatskapelle Weimar – who were the Anvil’s last visitors – which was founded in 1491, Norway’s second national orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic are mere striplings founded as they were in 1765.  As the programme noted, their international status has been raised considerably in just the last decade with tours taking them to the great concert halls and festivals of the world. More importantly a recording schedule for some of the best classical labels has resulted in a series of critically acclaimed discs of repertoire ranging from Mendelssohn to Messiaen.  The praise is well justified so it was a particular pleasure to have a precious opportunity to hear a great orchestra live.

This was touring on a large scale with a programme demanding an extended complement of players at the top of their game.  A real rarity opened the programme.  The British might have claimed Delius for their own but it could be argued that Norway, both topographically and through his meeting with Norwegian artists, influenced Delius more.  Certainly this was the case in his formative years with the composers Grieg and Sinding and the poet/playwright Ibsen exerting a powerfully benevolent influence.  The early tone poem On the Mountains  [written in 1890] is the most explicit example of this interaction.  Rather confusingly, Delius wrote another work – the melodrama for voice and orchestra – Paa Vidderne at much the same time.  Paa Vidderne is Norwegian for “On the Mountains” but they are nearly wholly unrelated.  The useful programme note explained that this music is a response to an Ibsen poem which tells of a young man (hero?) who goes into the mountains, renouncing worldly pleasures instead deciding that “up here on the heights are freedom and God.”  The interest is hearing the proto musical/philosophical elements in the work that are present in the mature Delius.  Musically this links the work to Strauss – whose Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration were taking the musical world by storm –  as well as philosophically.  Within just a few years both Strauss and Delius were embracing the philosophy of Nietzsche.  On the Mountains is very rare on disc let alone in the concert hall so this was an extremely valuable chance to hear this interesting work.  It was the first Delius work to be publically performed – in Oslo in 1891 – and for all its passing weaknesses it remains a remarkably assured and confident piece.  So many Delian fingerprints are already in evidence with sweeping melody and leaping triplet figurations over pulsating bass lines.  This is a work that focuses on a broad emotional sweep of its central idea rather than trying to evoke the minutiae of the poem’s every line – another successful aspect is its relative concision.  At around fifteen minutes it does not outstay its welcome and provided an excellent ‘novelty’ with which to open the concert.

Andrew Litton conducted a very dramatic and convincing performance.  The criticism so often levelled at Delius is that his music can sag into an ecstatic “goo” of unresolving harmony.  Litton played this as a young man’s music, muscular and with the forward momentum convincingly maintained – significantly better than the only recording I know from Douglas Bostock and the RLPO.  From the very first bars the sonic character of the orchestra was established; the bass lines lighter and leaner than the Weimar orchestra with the upper strings agile and athletic if fractionally cool and objective with Delius’ surging melodies beautifully played if not wrung for every drop of emotion they contained .  The internal balance across the strings was not perfectly achieved with the violas – sitting in the ‘traditional’ position away from the right hand edge of the stage – sounding underpowered.  This proved to be an enduring characteristic of the evening – something a second performance would correct with adjustments to a ‘new’ hall being made.  The curse of the orchestral tour is you rarely get that second night.  As performed tonight this was a work well worth hearing and indeed deserving more frequent outings.

The second thread of the excellent Anvil’s International Concert Series is to perform all five of the Beethoven Piano Concerti.  Tonight it was the turn of Number 3 given by the young and hugely talented Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland.  This was the first time I have heard him and a very impressive encounter it proved to be.  The scale of the orchestra required for the second half meant that the stage had to be extended placing the piano in relative darkness.  The string strength was reduced right down to nearly half that that would be used in the Strauss.  No surprise there as such but it did serve to underline a near-chamber quality to the performance.  Set between the youthful ardour of the Delius and the massive late Romantic confidence of the Strauss this approach gave the programme a very satisfying variety – credit to some skilful programme planning.  From the Concerto’s opening this was a performance that benefitted from the Bergen orchestra’s neat and alert approach.  Accents were carefully pointed in the strings and the phrasing of the woodwind an especial delight.  Hadland’s first entry was perfectly judged combining superb clarity and articulation with lightness.  The programme writer made the point that this was the work in which Beethoven started to move away from the conventions of the Classical era.  Whilst that is undoubtedly so this is a work that can be just as effective when given as disarmingly an unmannered approach as here.  Indeed, the a chamber-like intimacy drew the audience in – Litton, a superb pianist in his own right, able to leave the music making to the players.  Again the Anvil’s excellent acoustics allowed the players to produce the slightest wisps of sound.  There were still occasional balance issues.  The timpanist in particular misjudged the hall and was too loud in the tutti passages, but this was a very minor blot in a very successful performance.

Hadland achieved a rapturous stillness at the opening of the song-like Largo.  Again simplicity and purity of musical line were defining features; this was playing of the highest order from soloist and orchestra alike.  The closing Rondo was delightfully dapper with a cadenza that sparkled with wit and technique in equal measure allowing the concerto to finish with a burst of sheer high spirits.  What a pleasure to see a young performer who is developing a highly successful career on the strength of their musicianship rather than how well they photograph.

Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben has been a test of an orchestra’s musical virility pretty much since the moment it was written.  Composed in 1898 it is the highwater mark of the group of seven symphonic poems that secured his reputation in the 1890’s.  The Domestic and Alpine symphonies would follow but from this time on Strauss would focus the bulk of his energies on the field of opera.  Heldenleben still courts controversy to a degree – some see it as the ultimate hubris in musical form with the composer casting himself in the role as “hero”.  Others feel it represents the illustrative symphonic poem in its ultimate form.  Indeed a member of the audience remarked to me after concert just how easy it was to follow the exact narrative of the work.  Whatever one’s standpoint it remains a severe test of an orchestra’s calibre.  It requires a huge number of players; triple wind (at least) plus extended brass – nine horns here – and percussion and a concertante solo part for the orchestra leader that is just about the hardest in the repertoire.

At the very opening the Bergen players again demonstrated the lean and lithe sound evident in the Delius.  Their orchestral sound is not built upon a bed of rich low tone that characterises many Germanic ensembles and was certainly true of the Weimar Staatskapelle.  Again Litton favoured an alert forward moving tempo that initially I wondered if it underplayed the grandeur – and yes – heroic feel of the work.  But he was playing a longer game.  Indeed across the span of the work as a whole I thought Litton’s pacing was exceptionally impressive.  His telling use of rubato allowed the big climaxes in the love scene and the hero’s works of peace to register tellingly in a way that would have been lessened if every earlier climax had been approached with equal intensity.

So while the opening The Hero established the musical character without overwhelming the performance really started to take wing from the second section on.  The Bergen woodwind who had impressed all night came to the fore with The hero’s adversaries carping and complaining with brilliant technical address but also impressive characterisation.  Another element of the work – too often forgotten or marginalised – came clear here too.  This is not just an egotistical romp.  There is wit and irony at work too.  Strauss’ embodiment of his musical enemies is a technical tour de force; he uses musical devices and phrases showing them to be pedants and luddites.  Litton and his players brought this out as well as I have ever heard – too often the contrapuntal demands of the writing reduces this and similar passages elsewhere to musical mush.  Here every line was immaculately delineated and the subtle character assassination complete.

The third section is the famous portrait in music of the composer’s wife described by Strauss as “every minute different from what she was the minute before”.  The role is given to the orchestra leader and it is a technical tour de force.  Yes, I have heard more sheerly beautiful performances but that is surely to miss the point.  Concertmaster David Stewart had not been onstage for the first half of the programme but he gave a magnificent portrayal of Pauline de Ahna.  This was the embodiment of capricious mercurial complexity -one moment swooningly loving the next pert and angular.  It’s horribly hard just to play the notes let alone add those kinds of extra-musical detail, but because Stewart was willing to sacrifice sheer beauty alone he raised his performance to moments of near expressionist intensity.  From this point on a performance that was already good rose to become something altogether more special.

Litton’s direction from the podium was tangibly more physical driving his players to give ever more, especially in the battle music of the hero’s deeds of war that follows his wife’s portrait.  In the late 1890’s this was considered scandalously dissonant.  Today, for all its visceral excitement – well captured here – it is the least interesting section of the work, but it does set up the transition to the greatest moment of theatre in the work – the hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-thrilling statement by the massed horns of the really heroic theme from Don Juan.  This section, The hero’s works for peace is just Strauss showing off!  Not just in the sense of “listen to all the good tunes I’ve written!” but also the sheer technical address to weave them altogether into a musical fabric that works.  No matter how often I hear this passage I miss about half of the quotations so skilfully are they melded together.  The programme writer makes the valid point that Strauss used mainly love themes thereby creating a linkage between creative productivity and domestic harmony.  From here to the end of the whole work Litton’s pacing was particularly assured with the dividend of earlier checked emotions paying off handsomely.  Just before the closing The hero’s flight from the world and the fulfilment of his Life a last outburst of derision from the critics showed just what a fine and collectively virtuosic group the Bergen strings are.  Indeed this is a work strewn with ensemble potholes for less assured groups and it has to be said every single one was negotiated with ease.  Yes, in the final sunset pages some extra weight of string tone [not just a case of being ‘louder’] would have countered the accompanying horn chords which did rather unbalance the effect but again the lasting impression was the excellence of the pacing of this passage.  Extremely warm applause greeted the performance with all the principal players being singled out for well-deserved personal congratulations.

As Andrew Litton said from the podium – no concert by this orchestra on tour would be complete without some Grieg.  So, by way of an encore the strings alone played the second of the Two Elegiac Melodies Op.34 – Last Spring.  Of course, they have this music in their bones and must have played this a thousand times but it was simply sublime.  The poetic fluidity of the writing and its hushed intensity fitted the orchestra’s style to perfection.  And how wise not to try and top the grandeur and excess of the Strauss with a two minute firework.  There are always those strange people determined to leave a concert hall as the last note of the programme has barely died away.  In this instance by failing to stay and acknowledge the efforts of this fine orchestra they deprived themselves of five minutes of heaven.

Nick Barnard