Northern Lights Shine Brightly from the BBC NOW under Andersson’s Baton

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nystroem, Stenhammar, Rautavaara, Leifs, Sibelius: Christian Ilse Hadland* (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, B Tommy Andersson (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 15.12.2015. (PCG)

Gösta Nystroem (1890-1966) – The Tempest (1934): Prelude

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) – Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op.23* (1907)

Eino Rautavaara (b.1928) – Cantus Arcticus, Op.61 (1972)

Jón Leifs (1899-1968) – Geysir, Op.51 (1961)

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) – Tapiola, Op.112 (1926) 

This concert, scheduled as part of the BBC’s ‘Northern Lights’ season, contained a number of novelties that are rarely encountered even on disc. Although no claims were made that any of the performances were British premières, I would hazard a suspicion that neither Geysir nor the prelude to The Tempest have been heard in Wales before. The prelude composed by Gösta Nystroem for a Swedish production of Shakespeare’s play exists in a recording under Evgeny Svetlanov, and the distinguished champion of Nordic music Robert Layton was fairly dismissive of it when reviewing that CD, comparing it unfavourably with the incidental music by Sibelius and Honegger. I would however challenge that view. The music depicting the storm had a real sense of ferocity, and indeed sounded highly adventurous, very like music that could have been written some forty years later with some swingeing playing from the brass and percussion. The central section of the overture clearly depicted Prospero’s magic island, and there were some really interesting novel touches here; a passage where a trumpet melody was shadowed by the flute playing in the octave below really caught the attention with its piquancy. It was hard to credit that the composer had studied with such an establishment figure as Vincent d’Indy; we were well removed from the civilised sensibilities of early twentieth century France in this music.

The second piano concerto by Stenhammar, however, fell well into the realm of the European mainstream, a romantic work in one movement (although the delineations of four linked sections were clearly audible). The first section however had a decided disconnected feel, with quite fierce orchestral tuttis contrasted with more rhapsodic piano writing which failed to convey much sense of unity. The second section, a whirlwind scherzo, was compared by Peter Reynolds in his programme note to Mendelssohn, although I thought a closer comparison could have been drawn with Saint-Saëns in his second piano concerto; and the central trio in this section was completely different in mood, not helped by the fact that the contrasts Stenhammar drew in question-and-answer sessions between soloist and orchestra in unrelated keys, striking on their initial appearance, went on far too long to sustain interest. The ‘slow movement’, on the other hand, was a real gem with a lyrical string melody that had a positive feel of Rachmaninov and was regrettably short. The finale however suffered from a whole series of premature coda-like passages which felt too often as though the concerto was drawing to an exciting close, only to veer away into new material like one of those Beethoven symphonies that never seem quite certain when they will end. Christian Ihle Hadland played superbly throughout, and clearly believed in the score; but the concerto sat rather uneasily in a programme which otherwise emphasised the pictorial nature of the Scandinavian landscape. (Incidentally, although this concerto is designated Stenhammar’s second, it was for a long time the only one extant since the score of the first concerto was lost for many years following an air raid on Breslau, and has only been unearthed again in recent years.)

After the interval we returned to the depiction of Scandinavian landscapes with Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, the composer’s most popular work but surprisingly rarely performed live, possibly because of the difficulties involved in providing the taped bird-song which forms such an essential part of the score. The use of recorded bird-song in symphonic music is nothing new, of course, going back to Respighi’s Pines of Rome; but while Respighi indicates the actual recording he intends to be played, even quoting the catalogue number of the disc in his score, its presence is almost incidental to the whole and more modern recordings are almost invariably substituted. With Rautavaara, however, the use of electronically altered sounds (the shore lark in the second movement transposed down by two octaves) means that the use of the original tapes is essential; and that in turn constricts the opportunities for interpretation available to live performers who have to correlate their playing to the pre-existing tape. The results here were very beautifully realised, but in the final movement with its overlays of different orchestral textures the tuning showed signs of insecurity which may possibly have been the result of the very high temperatures in the hall itself (there was a very full audience for this concert).

During Leifs’s Geysir the doors at the side of the hall were thrown open to accommodate the sounds of gunshots (or, rather, cannonades) which Leifs employed to indicate the impending eruption of the hot spring which gives its title not only to the work but also to all similar geological features around the globe (not to mention domestic water heating systems). It is an imposing piece, not quite as loud as Leifs’s other depictions of Icelandic landscapes in the volcanic Hekla and the waterfall Dettifoss but still packing plenty of punch and drama. Unfortunately it served rather to cast Sibelius’s Tapiola which followed into the shade, although here the performance itself was partly to blame. There were a couple of obvious (and surprising) mishaps, but the score did not really hold together even taking these into account. Important figurations were too often blurred, brass eruptions were abruptly unfocused and noisy, and passages like the extended string tremolos towards the end did not grow organically from the music in the manner that this quasi-symphonic score really demands. Some of the string passages were superbly and delicately inflected, but again it seemed that the temperatures in the hall were not being kind to the brass tuning. Nor was the closing diminuendo controlled enough, with an unevenness of sound. I have often admired this orchestra’s performances of Sibelius in the past, but this Tapiola was not their finest hour. Nonetheless the concert as a whole was exciting in its presentation and exploration of music well off the beaten track, and one was grateful for the opportunity to hear the Nystroem and Leifs pieces in particular. B Tommy Andersson, conducting without a baton, clearly knows and loves all these works, and his enthusiasm was infectious. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, and remains available for listeners on the BBC i-player for the coming month – well worth investigation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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