United Kingdom Sibelius, Martinsson, Haydn: Lisa Larsson (soprano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Olari Elts (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 9.5.2015 (SRT)
Sibelius: Three pieces from Kuolema
Martinsson: Garden of Devotion (UK premiere)
Haydn: Scena di Berenice
Symphony No. 86
Two of Sibelius’ three pieces for the play Kuolema (Death) are well known independently. The first, the Valse Romantique, is less so because, I learnt tonight, it’s fairly ordinary. Although perfectly pleasant, it’s not much more than Tchaikovsky-light, but the Scene with Cranes is much more involving, especially when played, as here, with strings so icy that they betray the music’s Nordic origins. The winds that evoke the crane cries cut through the texture sharply, while leader Ruth Rogers contributed a violin solo that was remarkable because it was passionate. It was also good to hear the Valse Triste in its original form, where sections sound intense and passionate, but those famous, melancholic string moments were still full of feeling.
Tonight’s big interest, however, was the British premiere of Rolf Martinsson’s Garden of Devotion. It’s a song cycle of five poems from The Gardener by Rabindranath Tagore, centring on a woman asking a man to devote himself to her fully but failing to receive a positive answer. I found it really attractive. Martinsson’s musical language is firmly tonal and melodic, the orchestration (for strings only) repeatedly lush and welcoming, matching the soprano line perfectly as one complements the other. In some of the songs, the music is tailored acutely to the words, as in Do Not Keep, where the yearning of the voice is reflected in the yearning of the words, or Do Not Go where the lover’s insecurity is reflected in the slight nervousness of the vocal line. Appealing as the string texture is, it doesn’t vary much for the first three songs, but the fourth is much more still, while an element of stridency creeps into final songs, reflecting the lover’s newfound detachment from the man (and it’s clearly an unwilling severance!).
The cycle was written for Lisa Larsson, who has premiered it in several locations and knows it well, so it’s difficult to criticise her accented English given the circumstances. She was confident and mostly secure with her singing, though there was an overall huskiness to the top of her voice. Her Scena di Berenice was rather uninvolved, however, most damagingly in the opening recitative, which should make your hair stand on end. It didn’t really get going until the final F minor section, and even that sounded rather pale in places.
Haydn is a great way to end a concert, however, and this performance of Symphony No. 86 was a delight. The orchestral sound was full and forward focused throughout with clean, bouncy strings and sparky winds. Overall it was unselfconscious and very affirmative, though Olari Elts at times seemed to resemble a character actor on the podium. It climaxed in an utterly joyous finale, bursting with energy and colour, that sent me out into the Spring evening with it buzzing around inside my head.