Nielsen: Helios Overture; Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder; Nielsen: Symphony no. 4, 'The Inextinguishable'

Lang, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Oramo

Usher Hall, 19 August 2010 4.5 stars

Petra LangAfter this blistering performance of Nielsen's triumphantly affirmative masterpiece, the question goes out to Edinburgh: where were you? It is a long time since I was last at such a poorly attended Usher Hall performance, and inevitably one meditates—with little to go on—about the thoughts of those people who stayed away

So, I claim that Nielsen's fourth symphony is among the outstandingly great contributions to the literature; and, I claim that this was a superb performance of it. However, if you were to ask orchestral managers why this and Nielsen's fifth, a work of equal stature, appear so seldom in the concert hall, no doubt they will point to this turnout and say, 'there’s your answer'.

It is easy to say, after the event, that 'you should have been there'; there must be an explanation, albeit a speculative one, for this mysterious failure of programming alchemy. I suspect that the works selected for the first half of the concert have a bearing. Their choice seems to have been informed by an intelligent appetite for a philosophical line. Both Helios and the Wesendonck Lieder have reflexive relationships with the aesthetic theory of their respective times as it relates to 'the life force'.

Interesting though that may be, the musical realization does not necessarily match the philosophical ambition. The Helios overture, which purports to narrate the solar cycle and thus the cyclical nature of life, includes some radiant string writing, immediately establishing the orchestra's credentials. Ultimately, though, it isn't a work that grasps you by the collar in the way that one of Sibelius's symphonic poems might.

So too is Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder a pale cousin to the major work of the period, Tristan und Isolde, as though the latter's epic conflagration of love and death has been scaled back to fit the domestic hearth. Certainly Petra Lang, in the solo role, has a beautifully produced voice, warmly wrapped in a svelte musical sensibility. Given the opportunity afforded by 'Im Treibhaus', the third song familiar in its orchestral form as the prelude to act III of Tristan, she and the orchestra were able to combine and create a real, haunting magic. It's just a pity that Wagner's genius touches the rest of the score so sparingly, the occasional masterstroke (such as the voicing of the very last chord) only piquing the listener further.

Such reservations as one might have about the first half's repertoire ability to engage and absorb vanish as soon as the 'Inextinguishable' gets under way. Irresistibly direct, positive and vibrant, a blazing elemental energy courses through every measure of the opening allegro, right from the very first notes. No time lost to exposition, pacing, or any of that old-fashioned decorum — the listener is plunged headfirst into a swirling torrent of motivic growth. This is a celebration of nature, but one informed by a modern scientific sensibility.

One might look to Nietzsche for an interpretation of Nielsen's message in terms of the supremely generative will of nature, but a better model is Bergson's élan vital, grounded in the emerging evolutionary theory. The former leads inevitably to conflict; the latter affords points of equilibrium. There is nothing conciliatory, nor overpowered, about the second movement's peaceful repose; it is as though the succeeding movements are in gestation, a sense augmented by the developing pulse felt from the timpani beneath the third movement's more expansive gestures. By the time that the swelling urgency of the finale has been launched, with the thrilling synergy of two timpanists in harness driving the orchestra in full cry, it is easy to feel that Nielsen has put his hand on the thunderous heartbeat of the demiurge. There's nothing else quite like it in the literature.

Oramo pushed his luck with the brisk tempo he set in the finale, but his musicians responded superbly to the challenge. A sense of just how good a performance this was only dawned, nonetheless, during the two generous Sibelius encores Oramo and the orchestra offered. First, the Valse Triste—last heard here in Pogorelich's hands last year, and in some ways almost as surprising—and second, Kurkikohtaus (Scene with cranes) from the same set of incidental music, in which the depth of Oramo's rapport with his musicians, and his ability to conjure warmth and serenity with such apparent spontaneity was palpable.

I urge you to make a note in your diary to watch out for the BBC relay, to be broadcast on September 15th at 7pm and available online for the following week.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Petra Lang

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