United Kingdom Sibelius, Nielsen, Beethoven: James Ehnes (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 24.4.2015 (SRT)
Sibelius: Karelia Suite
Nielsen: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
I admit I’ve always found Nielsen a rather difficult composer to love. His gnarled textures and often jarring contrasts have often left me rather cold and, so far, nothing in this, his anniversary year, had happened to make me change my mind. However, I was pretty much bowled over by this superb performance of his Violin Concerto. I suspect that the main reason for his was that I had such capable guides in James Ehnes and Thomas Søndergård. Nielsen’s craggy landscapes can be difficult to navigate, but Søndergård seemed to guide our way through this one with total clarity and a clear sense, not only of revelling in the moment, but of what was coming next. In his hands this landscape actually felt rather welcoming.
But it is largesse indeed to have someone of the level of James Ehnes to play the solo line. He is surely one of the very finest violinists in the world today, playing at the top of his game, and his playing tonight showed not only that he knew the notes but that he had worked hard to understand the spirit of the piece and what lay behind the dots on the page. The virtuosity was there, of course, with a dazzling opening flourish and stunning cadenzas, with double-stopping that often had me wondering how on earth he was doing it. Even better, though, was the keynote of beauty that ran through his whole vision of the score, from the song-like main melody of the opening movement, through to the focused lightness of the Allegro cavalleresco. Best of all, though, was the melancholy beauty of the melody of the slow movement, which seemed to flow in a seamless, rhapsodic stream out of Ehnes’ violin. The perky finale was brilliantly controlled, and the final strait, after the cadenza, felt like the final act of a great story, brilliantly told. I never thought I’d say that of a Nielsen concert, but I consider myself lucky to have heard this one. John Storgårds joins the RSNO next week to conduct the Inextinguishable Symphony, so we’ll see then if tonight was any more than a fluke!
Sibelius, that other great Nordic birthday boy, was also treated to a Karelia Suite with gleaming outer movements (of unusually precise rhythm, even in the outer sections of the Intermezzo) and enticingly warm, sensual strings in the central Ballade. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony felt like slightly unusual company for these northern beasts. However, this performance also benefited from bright sound with lots of colour and Søndergård applying plenty of fine strokes of colour so that familiar passages sounded fresh. Tempi were on the quick side without sounding absurd, and it was actually quite refreshing to hear the symphony performed by a full symphony orchestra, albeit with a few nods to period style. On the whole, it was a fairly straight, middle-of-the-road performance, at least by the criteria that we’ve become used to these days. However, nowadays perhaps a refusal to innovate is the new revisionism!