“Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor”
Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s gig played to a larger and more diverse audience than at their normal Queen’s Hall venue, and the audience showed their appreciation with a near full house, enthusiastic applause, restraint with seasonal agues such as coughing (your beleaguered writer included!) and respectful post performance silences following the conductor’s upraised baton at the end of the quieter pieces. It was a joy to be among the cognoscenti.
The programme was a contrast of early and late Romantic works, with composition dates ranging from 1787 to 1924. Curiously, three of the works comprised several years in their gestation, and the remaining Coriolan Overture was written for no apparent purpose at all other than composition for the sake of it (not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is more of a 20th rather than 19th century idea, in a past age of mostly commissioned music). Beethoven spent 11 years finalising his Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 19 (which was in fact his first concerto), and Sibelius the best part of a decade on his last two symphonies. That is, I have calculated, about 3 minutes music per year in the case of the latter, one minute in the case of the Beethoven. I guess that they had one or two other things to attend to as well? Even George R R Martin is doing better than that with the concluding ‘Game of Thrones’ book.
Was the deliberation in terms of timescale worth it? In the case of the Beethoven I would say yes, for Sibelius, I would be less sure.
Conductor Joseph Swensen bounded on to the podium to start off the proceedings with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op 62. An amiable great big bear of a man, heavily bearded, of mixed Japanese and Norwegian heritage, he kicked off the playing without ado and drove us through ten minutes of classical gothic music without reference to a score. The orchestra responded well to his enthusiastic conducting (no baton) and we experienced a fluent, well played opener that lifted our spirits.
Next up the wonderfully adept Paul Lewis took us through the Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2. Only last week Can Cakmur gave us a spellbinding interpretation of the third with the RSNO in the very same hall. The second was a completely different work, of almost a different world, mature Mozart rather than Beethoven at the height of his powers, eleven years separating their composition. To compare them would be comparing chalk with cheese. Lewis played with consummate ease and brought everything out of the work that he should have. After the long, tautly played orchestral opening Lewis entered with bright, clear tone, good intonation and phrasing. The well known third movement Rondo: Molto Allegro was a delightful, reassuring romp. Enthusiastic applause but alas no encore, the more surprising in view of the relatively short duration of the programme. Never mind, mustn’t be greedy.
Two Sibelius symphonies filled the second half of the programme, No 6 in D minor, Op 104 (1923) and No 7 in C, Op 105 (1924). This was the programme feature of the evening, and one wondered what our charming rather enigmatic conductor, with his Scandinavian roots, would make of these relatively unknown works compared to the over popular 2nd and 5th symphonies
The 6th is constructed in conventional four movement style and lasts approximately 25 minutes. Too much, in my opinion, has been made of the fact that Sibelius was studying Palestrina when he wrote it. More telling, I suspect, was that it was rather overshadowed by the fifth symphony being written at the time. Sibelius himself said that it reminded him of snow falling. A sublime, ethereal string orchestra opening followed by woodwind calling. Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor. The second movement built up the tension and the third was a return to the more plaintive; the final Allegro Molto a return to the brass we know so well. I wanted to rush home and listen to it again and again. A privilege to hear this “Cinderella” of Sibelius symphonies being done by so rightly by a deeply sensitive conductor and orchestra.
Finally to the final Sibelius symphony, No 7. A single movement work of a little under 25 minutes, more of a tone poem and originally entitled Fantasia Symphonica No 1, Robert Layton has described it as “completely original in form, subtle in its handling of tempi, individual in its treatment of key and wholly organic in growth”. Moreover ‘New Grove’ describes it as “Sibelius’s most remarkable symphonic achievement”. Hmm. It does grow and deliberately lacks the shape of a symphony. I suppose one should regard it as a musical development, even if one does not always know where it is going. A string opening very much in the tragic genre, with the brass making its presence felt and gradually taking over. Bruckner does brass with forcefulness and aggression, Wagner with foreboding, but Sibelius does brass with soul! The work, much favoured by many, made for an intriguing essay in related sounds and passages conjuring up imaginings of mystical Finnish folklore.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 14 March)
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