United Kingdom Sibelius, Grieg. Christian Ihle Hadland (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 5.12.2014 (PCG)
Sibelius – Symphony No 6 in D minor, Op.104
Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Sibelius – Symphony No 1 in E minor, Op.39
Discussion of Sibelius’s First Symphony often revolve around its adoption of “Tchaikovsky as its most conspicuous model”, to quote John Pickard’s programme note for this concert. But although Sibelius’s use of blocks of contrasted orchestral sounds (deriving ultimately from Berlioz’s influence on Russian composers during his visits there) may suggest the influence of what was at the time the occupying power in Finland, the opening almost unmeasured clarinet solo (beautifully played here by Robert Plane with a diminuendo shading away into almost total silence) is far removed from anything to be found in Tchaikovsky. Nor is the manner in which the composer develops his thematic material anything other than Sibelian. Only in the final movement, marked “like a fantasia” do we find luscious melodies for strings in octaves which have a Tchaikovsky-like flavour, and these hardly dominate the score. Thomas Søndergård clearly sought to emphasise the characteristic Sibelian elements in the music, and the result was highly satisfying with the orchestra playing superbly.
If comparisons with Tchaikovsky can be misleading in Sibelius’s First Symphony, so parallels between the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos can also be over-emphasised. The two concertos are of course in the same key, and the opening downward gesture for the solo piano clearly shows the influence of Schumann on Grieg, but otherwise they are very different works. In particular, where Schumann leaves much of the musical expression in the interpretative hands of his soloist, Grieg is much more precisely prescriptive in his indications of both dynamic shading and graduations of tempo. Here Christian Ihle Hadland made much of these in a manner that Stephen Hough in his performance of the Schumann concerto in Cardiff the week before had largely eschewed, and the result was both idiomatic and convincing. To have a Norwegian pianist in such essentially Norwegian music brought a real sense of identification; and the accompaniment by the orchestra (much more idiomatically scored than Schumann, after Grieg’s lengthy process of continual revision extending over thirty-five years) was excellent, apart from a couple of wind solos that were somewhat obscured by the lid of the piano from where I was sitting. This will doubtless have been corrected by the time this concert is broadcast.
To open the concert Søndergård had given us a performance of the Sibelius Sixth Symphony, the comparatively neglected cousin among the composer’s last four mature works in the form. He underlined the parallels with Tapiola in the ‘development’ of the first movement, and – as one has come to expect from this orchestra – the playing of the violins had plenty of plangent warmth as well as atmosphere. He also admirably brought out the curious structure of the symphony, with each of the movements sharing characteristics of slow and scherzo-like material which anticipate the one-movement structure of the Seventh Symphony, although such elements had of course also been in evidence in Sibelius’s earlier scores. Throughout Søndergård’s close attention to detail brought out the many felicitous touches in the writing; and the fluctuations of pace during the finale, which can sound unmotivated in the wrong hands, here made perfect sense. The saturated tones which he conjured from the strings in the closing bars could only be described as absolutely heavely.
Following performances earlier this year of the Sibelius Second and Seventh symphonies with the same orchestra, I understand this concert is ultimately to form part of a complete cycle under Søndergård which is also to be commercially released on CD. When it finally appears it will clearly form a considerable challenge to existing cycles, with superb orchestral playing in response to interpretations which give full weight to all the telling detail in the scores. One only hopes that, if the recordings are taken from live performances, measures will be taken to get rid of the occasional audience coughing; the hall here was very full indeed for a mid-afternoon concert.
Paul Corfield Godfrey