Nordic Brevity Meets Unknown Russian Symphony from Late 1930s

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Sibelius, Juon: BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 4.8.2016. (RBa)

Carl Nielsen: Overture – Maskarade (1906)

Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela (1895)

Paul Juon: Rhapsodic Symphony Op. 95 (Symphony No. 3) (1938)

Finnish Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Phil, John Storgårds, treated Salford Quays and BBC audiences to two Scandinavian favourites and an unknown and very rare symphony by Russian exile Paul Juon (1872-1940).

Nielsen wrote two contrasting operas – the grand Saul and David and the light romantic Maskarade. Both were written in the 1900s. The overture to the latter work seems designed for a separate concert life. There is nothing comparable for Saul and David. The flighty and variegated Maskarade overture instantly captivates. It’s an effervescent piece standing in a long line tracing back to the overtures Nozze di Figaro and Donna Diana and innocently looking forward to Bernstein’s Candide and Barber’s School for Scandal. This score could easily be a fugitive movement from his earlier Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-2). Let’s call it The Mercurial alongside the symphony’s Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine. Storgårds and the BBCPO brought out its zest. Romantic asides, often scouted over in the interests of winged exhilaration, were solicitously attended to.

The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius cast its usual spell, curving upwards from the cellos’ opening murmur to the glow of the violins, the famous cor anglais pages, the emotionally taut and hypnotic ‘tick-tock’ of drums and harp to the final sigh from the solo cello. There was no sign of routine in this performance.

The music of Russian-German-Swiss composer Paul Juon is a very rare visitant to the world’s concert halls. He’s hardly a household name anywhere. Juon studied with Arensky and Taneyev and then pursued things further with Woldemar Bargiel at the Berlin School of Music. There he taught until 1934 and numbered Philipp Jarnach and Stefan Wolpe among his charges. He moved to Switzerland in 1939. Quite apart from writing three violin concertos Juon also left us two possibly intriguing twenty-minute works: Jotunheimen (1924) – a tone poem for two pianos and Mysterien (1928) – a symphonic poem for cello and orchestra after Knut Hamsun.

The Rhapsodic Symphony dates from the eve of the Second World War and was written within a year of its composer’s death. It seems that this, his third and last symphony, met with an enthusiastic reception when premiered at the Reichsmusiktagen in Düsseldorf in 1939. There are two earlier and unnumbered symphonies from Juon’s Russian years around the turn of century. Those two symphonies have been recorded fairly recently by the heroic Swedish Sterling label. There are two other Juon symphonies: a 1905 Chamber Symphony and a 1929 Small Symphony for student string orchestra. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Juon to go in for numbering any of them. Add to them a Sinfonietta Capriccioso from the late 1930s, three opus numbers later. That the BBC Phil gave this performance is remarkable and as Storgårds announced that this was probably the UK premiere. Storgårds reeled off a list of composers as an introduction to help orientate the audience: Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Korngold. Comparing notes, Yuri Torchinsky, the Leader, added two other names especially in the context of the first movement: Taneyev and Arensky. In one of those labels that adheres to composers after their death, Juon has been dubbed the ‘Russian Brahms’. I detected no evidence of that in this Symphony.

Rhapsodic Symphony is something of a contradiction in terms so what does Paul Juon do with it? This 39-minute work is in two large movements: Commodo and Allegro Marziale. Predominantly speaking, the first movement was the more densely orchestrated and incident-intense of the two while the second was the most delicately orchestrated. The first ran the gamut with gaunt and harsh brass fanfares, a busy vertically crowded effect thronged with ideas and activity with the mood tense and the sound often luxurious. At various points listeners may catch a glimpse of Korngold here, of Miaskovsky there and there are moments of Mahlerian tenderness. There’s certainly a romantic gleam about this music although the high cholesterol textures in the Commodo can occasionally congeal. The second movement – in which Storgårds began using his baton – starts with what sounded to me like a galumphing ländler from the cellos; not very Russian. This morphs into Tchaikovskian writing incorporating the sweetest solos for oboe, flute and then horn. Torchinsky contributes an old-style honeyed violin solo and the music becomes increasingly emotional in a way familiar from the famous ballet duet from Khachaturian’s Spartacus. Impressions flood in: a delightful light-footed dance, skittish Korngoldian writing, urbane street-life, Straussian luxury and an emulation of a bell carillon. There’s a tellingly magnificent peroration from horns and then the whole brass complement.

It is expected that the Juon will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 early in 2017.

There is a useful Juon website which is worth a look.

Each work was performed complete. Each required a couple of patches as directed from the control room. These were genially implemented by Storgårds and his orchestra.

This 2.00 pm concert was given as usual without intermission before a welcoming capacity audience.

Rob Barnett

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