As big 'northern' programmes go – physically earthy, aspiring skywards, stirring blood and spirit, trembling the ground, incanting spells – the first half of this Gothenburg evening was up there with the best.
Based in Sweden but American-born, Daniel Nelson studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and University of Chicago, and with Lars-Erik Rosell in Stockholm. In 2015 he received the Carin Malmlöf-Forssling Composition Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Commissioned by the Orchestre National d’île de France, Steampunk Blizzard (2016) was premiered at the Paris Philharmonie in January 2017. Steampunk – a sci-fi genre, goes the Oxford definition, “that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology”; alternatively “a style of design and fashion that combines historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction”. Funky vintage. Musically, this can be interpreted in many ways – think of Thomas Dolby, or Paul Roland's psych-folk-rock “steeped in the literature of the fantastic, macabre, and legendary”.
The concert hall, unsurprisingly, has been slow embracing the movement. Notwithstanding some metric flexibility, squared patterns, marshalled ensembles and repetitive shaman figures stand out most in Nelson's piece, his instructions a clear pointer to the character and incisiveness he's after. “Play with mechanical precision”, “Delicately, but with clockwork accuracy”, “With metronomic exactness”. The orchestration is clean and athletic, here and there like a skeletal blueprint of combinations I've met before in Kamran Ince's otherwise more intricate Turkish-American symphonies. An audience-friendly reprise is built into the structure.
The tour de force of the concert was Kalevi Aho's percussion concerto, Sieidi (2010), commissioned by the London Philharmonic, Luosto Classic Festival and Gothenburg Symphony, Colin Currie giving the premiere at the Royal Festival Hall under Osmo Vänskä in April 2012. In the northern Samí language, Sieidi means a cult or ritual place. Suggestively, the composer thinks the remote Aurora fells of Arctic Luosto may have been such a location. Journeying this filmic, single-movement narrative, rites, war drums, offerings to ancient gods, axes at the ready, murmured confessions, gothic pines, dying fires, the secret silence of the night, all come to mind. It begins and ends with an un-pitched solo West African djembe: forte initially, reinforced by two gran cassa to left (orchestral Percussion II) and right (Percussion III) of the platform; ppp to close, to the eerie sound of three slowly turning rain-sticks (the first held high by the principal timpanist, Hans Hernqvist, Percussion I).
Waves and swaying curtains of incident, attack and colour, stases and oases, transpire in between. Aho's phenomenal imagination, his deployment of solo and orchestral instruments (a theatrical and contrapuntal extravaganza), his artistry bridging progression and imagery, forging a cohesive entity of slow and quick incident, softs and louds, found an impassioned, riveting, extraordinarily involved collaborator in the Austrian Martin Grubinger. If his command over marimba, vibraphone (struck and bowed), tom-toms and temple blocks was mesmerising, his hand drumming, across the dynamic spectrum, was heart-stopping. A drummer who “makes the djembe talk”, believe the Malinké people, is one “who tells a story”. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, pristine in technique, held the tension well, ensemble chordings were broadly tight, and several solos stood out, alto sax for one. The live-stream, however, unusually for Gothenburg's studio team, was not without latency issues, leading to a loss of sync at the start.
Rouvali is not a young man to fear the repertory standards. Maybe the tempo variables in his Beethoven Second Symphony last October raised stylistic concerns, but his Strauss Alpine in September was nothing short of magnificently brilliant – high emotion, risk-taking and all. His blazing Sibelius Five in this hall back in August 2017 famously wooed orchestra and audience. Less so on this occasion, despite essentially the same forces led again by Sara Trobäck. Seemingly not so fresh, showing signs of listlessness, he steered a relatively routine course, still finding depth and sonorous beauty in the slower sections but losing bite and tidiness in certain faster passages – transient accelerations in the second movement could have been more artfully accommodated. The largamente peroration of the Finale touched nobility. But holding back the last nine bars by so much came at a price, applause breaking in following the first of 'Thor's' six hammer blows. (Some conductors have made a case for continuing through the preceding stretto, it makes sense.) Grandly flourished, Martin Ödlund's double-attacked timpani at the finish, going well beyond the notation of the page, were cadentially cathartic, a vibrant reminder of how once (pre-Berglund days) you simply never got to hear Sibelius's flams. Rouvali was mindful, if not victorious.