Disappointing Start to Nielsen Symphonic Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Nielsen:  Augustin Hadelich (violin),  BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, London,  11.10.2014 (GD)

Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 6, in B minor ‘Pathetique’
Mozart:   Violin Concerto No 4, in D major, K,218
Carl Nielsen :  Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7


This was the first concert in a Nielsen Symphony cycle which will extend up until May 2015. Looking at the forthcoming concerts I was surprised to find that they do not include any of Nielsen’s other orchestral works. He composed quite a few, like the splendid ‘Helios’ Overture, and the Rhapsidy Overture ‘A Fantasy journey to the Faroes’. However the concerts do include some Sibelius orchestral music not much played, like the ‘ Oceanides’, and the fascinating symphonic poem ‘Tapiola’ . Perhaps this was to contrast Nielsen with his great Finnish contemporary?

This was certainly not conventional programming. I am all for more unconventional programming, but I didn’t really see the point of opening with the ‘Pathetique’ Symphony. Surely this, of all works, with its great tragic coda (almost sounding like a symphonic Requiem) should end any programme?  Oramo’s reading of the ‘Pathetique’ was something of  a mixed bag. The gloomy B minor opening was quite well sustained and balanced. The all important bassoon part ‘sounding’ but also well integrated. The transition to the big melody in D major was well gauged with antiphonal violins,  but the theme itself tended to drag, when it should flow. Also I noticed a slight ritardando on the first three notes, a mannerism as part of a long interpretive tradition. The ff crash which initiates the ‘Allegro vivo’ development, although quite well executed, didn’t have the dramatic ‘shock’ impact heard from conductors like Toscanini in 1938, and Mravinsky in a 1955 studio recording. As the huge dramatic development progressed I felt that the huge tonal shifts and dynamic contours wqere quite well played, but really they need to be held together more cogently, not helped by some indistinct dramatic canonic figurations in the brass. There was a certain lack of dramatic coherence. And the solemn trombone chords in B minor intoning the Russian Orthodox Mass of the Dead failed to make their lugubrious effect. The great climax, with Wotan-like descending trombones lacked a sense of catastrophe heard with master conductors like Toscanini, Mravinsky and Klemperer. Also I would have welcomed more weight and power from the timpani, which sounded somewhat smudged and tame. The second movement, which takes the style of a waltz, had a certain lack of elegance in the 5/4 lilt. The trio was bland, the persistent median pedal on timpani sounded more like a run-through. I certainly missed the note of Slavic melancholy here, so idiomatically achieved by Mravinsky.

Oramo conducted the great G major third movement march in a quite straightforward manner, apart from one arbitrary mannerism. The opening busy theme of triplet motion was not always together in terms of orchestral ensemble; and as this developed I felt little sense of expectation or excitement. When the big tutti march blazed forth it all sounded a tad four-square with little sense of dynamic contrast. On its second statement Oramo made a ritardado making the march sound pompous and mannered, when it should sound powerfully resolute if played as Tchaikovsky requests in the score. And in the coda itself I missed that sense of menace just beneath the tone of triumph. Oramo went straight into the finale attacca style, thus discouraging the stupid clapping/applause by some members of the audience. The great tragic finale gained from being played in a direct and forward moving manner; and apart from too much vibrato, especially in the strings there was little conductorial emotional overlay. The second subject hymn-like theme didn’t sound as haunting as it can, but it was well shaped and contoured, as were the huge climaxes which follow, never sounding dynamically ‘overdone’. The distant stroke on the gong (for Tovey ‘the most ominous sound in the orchestra’) was quite discreetly incorporated  without any loss of its unusual and ‘ominous’ effect. The B minor coda with its mood of ‘utter despair’ was well shaped and balanced, apart from some disunity between violas, celli and double- basses in the throbbing coda. I just missed that final sense of catastrophe found with the master conductors previously mentioned.

It was odd, even after a 20 minute interval, to hear the elegant clarity and grace of Mozart’s K218 Violin Concerto, after  the  ‘utter despair’ and bleakness of the Tchaikovsky symphony. It certainly made a contrast! But tonight this elegance and grace in Mozart was somewhat compromised. The 19 year old Mozart, who had just finished producing his operas La finta giardiniera and Il Re pastore in 1775,  was particularly proud of his three last violin concertos; K 216, K 219  and this evening’s K218. Indeed he often wrote to his father of the humour and fun he found in these concertos. He was principally referring to the bucolic dance-song music with drone bass, known as ‘The Strasbourger’, popular at the time, and already   used  in K216, it also finds a place in the ‘Rondeau’ finale of K218. It is difficult today, to appreciate why this drone bass theme was so hilarious for Mozart? He was probably referring to the odd, bizarre and ‘outragious’ dance  movements/gestures and bawdy songs he and his father saw/heard  enacted in Salzburg. Oramo used a quite large orchestra, paying little attention to ‘period’ style performance. This is fine, as demonstrated by Jansons earlier this year, in a performance of K216, where the Concertebouw Orchestra played with real elegance, sharpness and clarity. Alas none of this was in evidence tonight. There was a distinct lack of clarity and sharpness particularly in the BBCSO’s strings. And the opening D major Galant muscular, lean theme sounded lumpy. This was not helped by Hadelich’s initial tuning difficulties. And in the quasi development section of the first movement where Mozart revels in a delicate flow of melody, a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, I had little sense of much dialogue and rapport between soloist and conductor. Similarly in the radiant ‘Andante’ little sense of Hadelich matching Mozart’s song-like melody, or achieving the ‘soulful’ richness and dialogue between the violin’s upper and lower registers. The woodwind playing here was no more than adequate. The rondeau finale just played along – like a rehearsal run-through-with not much attention to Mozart’s ‘Strasbourger inflections.  Hadelich’s tone remained peculiarly restricted, obscuring Mozart’s ‘grazioso’ dance sequences, and wonderfully contrasted allusions to over-refined French  ballet music, another species of the pastiche  Mozart found so hilarious. As an encore Hadelich gave a spirited rendition of Paganini’s Caprice No. 9, sometimes known as ‘La Chasse’

Oramo conducted a very direct and at times rather brash performance of Nielsen’s First Symphony. The first movement is marked orgoglioso (proudly), probably referring to the composer’s sense of pride in his first attempt at a form he loved. All the classic performances of the symphony certainly take it at an ‘allegro’ but more ‘Allegro non troppo’ as the term proud would suggest. Herbert Blomstedt’s various performances on and off record perfectly convey this.   But tonight Oramo took it at a very speedy ‘allegro’, which initially sounded acceptable, but the more lyrical second subject with beautifully rustic sounding woodwind phrases simply sounded rushed, robbing such passages of their poetry, and as one commentator put it their ‘innocence’. As a first symphony, and not much played, we should not reach the conclusion of this as being a mere prelude to Nielsen’s later symphonic wonders. All the later Nielsen elements are  here: provocative and  oddly bent melodies/harmonies, quite complex and impressive tonal constellations, here from G minor, to a jubilant C major, with daring tonal modulations and transmogrifications on the way – all part of Nielsen’s ‘progressive tonality’ taken up by true symphonists like Robert Simpson. The unfettered melodic stream of the ‘Andante’ again was taken too fast. There was little sense of dynamic contrast, everything sounding on the same level, resulting in the tender and reflective passages counting for not much. If only he had taken a slightly more measured  approached, realising the quieter pastoral sounding pp poetry as an implicit part of the music. The Scherzo with its lively rhythms sounded loud rather than buoyant and resolute. The tonal ambiguities, G minor crossing over with C major with C minor mediating between them lost much of their trenchant impact taken at such a break-neck tempo. The high spirited finale came over better with a real sense of expectation of the fiery and impetuous, sunlit C major coda, despite some rhythmic inaccuracies, especially in brass and timpani.

Geoff Diggines

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