Piano Concerto in A minor
Symphony No.6, Sinfonia semplice
Finghin Collins (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ole Schmidt
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 October, 2001
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Ole Schmidt has a reputation far greater than his infrequent appearances in the UK would suggest. Back in 1974, he recorded the first integral cycle of Nielsen’s symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra and, in 1980, gave only the fourth complete performance of the vast Gothic Symphony by Havergal Brian. So all credit to the CBSO for engaging him as part of its ’Discover Denmark’ season in the Nielsen symphony that was the highlight of his recorded cycle twenty-seven years ago.
Coming after the affirmative human statements of symphonies four and five, Sinfonia semplice is an ambivalent conclusion to Nielsen’s symphonic odyssey. Encroaching heart disease has often been considered the catalyst to the way ostensibly carefree music is constantly deflected into darker emotional territory. But other factors demand consideration, notably the fragmented music scene of the 1920s, to which Nielsen responded with a range of works whose avoidance of a settled idiom implies desperation or determination – according to perception of the composer’s achievement.
The opening ’Tempo giusto’ is Nielsen’s most complex symphonic movement, an intensifying sonata-rondo whose journey ’full circle’ is one of experience and acceptance. Schmidt paces it unerringly, the gentle humour of the opening moving naturally into the abrasive fugato music which, in the terrifying brass confrontation at the centre, comes close to tearing the movement apart. In his amalgamation of these violent contrasts into a coherent entity, Nielsen wrote nothing finer.
The CBSO was alert and responsive to the rapid changes of mood, here and in the two succeeding movements. The anarchic capers of the ’Humoreske’, trombone slides raucously prominent, had a suitably ironic detachment, while Schmidt steered a clear course through the strangely unfocussed profundity of the ’Proposta seria’, its atmospheric closing bars a highlight of the performance.
The ’Tema con variazioni’ was less impressive. Nielsen’s treatment of his irreverent theme over nine variations of increasing diversity needs absolute precision of response to maintain unity. Several tentative entries suggested only a partial identification with the music, or maybe Schmidt is himself less sure of the overall trajectory than on his classic recording. Yet the theatrical send-up of the coda was pungently realised, the closing bassoon-gesture a graphic gesture of defiance. A clearly nonplussed audience at least gave the work an accommodating reception.
Schmidt opened the first half with a characterful account of the overture to Maskarade, Nielsen’s second opera and among the few genuinely successful comic stageworks in the repertory. Less headlong than is often the case nowadays, Schmidt captured the essence of the music’s sparkling idiom.
Grieg’s Piano Concerto saw Dublin-born Finghin Collins make a return to the CBSO after his highly regarded debut last year. He has the measure of the poetry and pathos of Grieg’s evergreen score – the opening movement’s second theme was limpidly phrased, while the Adagio’s central episode was floated with Chopinesque poise. In the more dynamic passages, a tendency to impulsiveness made for some difficulty of co-ordination with the orchestra – which, together with Schmidt’s more phlegmatic perspective, lent a certain disunity to the rendition.
Yet there was no doubting the commitment that Collins invested in the performance, not least in a compulsive account of the main cadenza; a little more awareness of the ’wider picture’ should make all the difference. Future engagements with the orchestra will surely follow, and it is to be hoped too that Ole Schmidt’s unexpected but welcome matinee appearance in Birmingham will not be his last.