The Swedish Philharmonia display outstanding standards of music-making in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Sibelius: Viktoria Mullova (violinist), Swedish Philharmonia / Jaime Martin (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.3.2020. (GT)

Swedish Philharmonia (c) Nikolaj Lund

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.5 in D minor ‘Reformation’

Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor

Sibelius – Symphony No.5 in E flat major, Op.82

The Swedish Philharmonia is based in the north Swedish town of Gävle – roughly on the same latitude as Helsinki and Oslo – and some of the finest musicians have performed with them. The provincial town of Gävle is not a location that features in the myriad of Scandi thrillers which have become so popular here in recent years, however, this town of just 100,000 people has supported a professional orchestra for over one hundred years. The orchestra is called the Gävle Symphoniker and under this name have made several fine recordings of a wide repertoire from the baroque to contemporary music under their chief conductor Jaime Martin. Among their previous chief conductors was Robin Ticciati who for nine years was in charge of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Ticciati conducted all the Mendelssohn symphonies during his tenure with the SCO, so it was interesting to hear the Swedish take on this composer’s music.

In the Andante – allegro con fuoco, the noble idea on the low strings cited the Lutheran ‘Dresden’ amen originally written by Johann Naumann and was quoted by Wagner in Parsifal. The theme was gloriously intoned by the brass and some lively woodwind and aided by the strings. In a marvellous passage there was an anticipation of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave in an evocation of the sea, which – when picked up by the whole orchestra – ushered in a tremendous culmination. Before, unobtrusively, the noble Lutheran hymn emerged leading to a calm ending.

In the Allegro vivace, a bright woodwind theme was succeeded by a resplendently sunny second idea from the oboes with trills on the flutes in the G major trio section revealing a kinship with the composer’s ‘Italian’ Symphony. Switching to B flat, the strings created some amazingly vivid harmonies so typical of Mendelssohn.

In the Andante, a wonderful plaintive idea on strings had a likeness to ‘A Song without Words’ in which the incomparable virtuosity heard from Julia Crowell’s flute embroidered another lovely Mendelssohnian melody. It was noticeable that the conductor occasionally switches from baton to hands depending on the emotional aspect of the score. The solo flute once more played a captivating theme, which Erik Rodell on the oboe picked up, before this brief interlude was ended by a brass fanfare and the cellos and basses introduced the finale, Andante con moto-Allegro vivace – Allegro maestoso. The woodwind and brass quoted the chorale ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ which was then heard resplendently by the violins, with more revelatory woodwind playing, and now – with five horns sounding triumphant and glorious – the bassoons reprised the noble Lutheran chorale leading to the stirringly majestic fanfare.

In the Prokofiev Violin Concerto, the tall Russian violinist, Viktoria Mullova, invoked an ancient Russian theme in the opening Allegro moderato. Joined by the low strings, suddenly the second rather dynamic Prokofiev theme – dark and suspenseful – changed to swiftly present an idea of beautiful lyricism on Mullova’s violin which was picked up by the woodwind. This was effortless playing from Mullova – there is little or no exhibitionism – proving her to be a musician who wholly concentrated on the music. The Andante assai, opened with a nocturnal tune on the clarinets, which was followed by a quite delicious theme by Mullova, one of the composer’s finest having an affinity with the theme of childhood and which is recycled in later compositions by Prokofiev. There was again exceptional flute virtuosity by Crowell of a beautiful idea – evocative of the Russian homeland – then re-emerging with dissonance on the horns leading to an upbeat tuneful passage. The trumpets entered before a brisk tempo emerged and there was the return of the lyrical theme on the violin. In the finale, Allegro ben marcato, there was shrill dissonance from the violin against sinister tones from the basses and the trumpets. Mullova introduced a heroic idea heard on the violins, and now there was a dash of extra colour from castanets. An upbeat rise in tempo was both dramatic and exciting with the ‘Spanish’ overtone evoked again by castanets in the mad musical race to the sudden ending.

For Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony a different leader, Åsa Wirdefeldt, took over from Peter Olofsson who led the first half of the concert. The Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato – Presto – Più presto opening to Sibelius’s symphony was splendidly colourful on the brass, and then the woodwind echoed the plaintive idea. This sombre theme was followed by a marvellous passage of suspense against intonation from Rachel Gough’s bassoon. In the tempestuous Presto section, the strings were eloquently persuasive in expressing the theme of nature, and the flute of Crowell again was brilliant before the crescendo to the splendid, glorious, and heroic, climax.

In the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, a beautiful theme on the flutes was picked up by the violins – playing pizzicato – leading to a wonderfully optimistic, yet reflective, mood from the horns. The secondary upbeat theme on violins, was joined by cheerful chirping on the woodwind presenting a bright idyllic mood. In the finale (Allegro molto) the great and noble ‘Swan’ horn theme was picked up by the finely disciplined strings, and then in a final majestic rise to a glorious crescendo with the evocation of sixteen swans rising in flight –  or what Sir Donald Tovey called the vision of Thor swinging his great hammer – Sibelius’s masterpiece closed heroically. Certainly, this was a revelatory concert from a provincial orchestra which can offer international standards of performance and indeed showed what can be achieved with proper support of the arts – something our own country can learn from.

Gregor Tassie

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