Music for Peer Gynt, Op.46 Suite No.1 [Morning Death of Åse Anitras Dance In the Hall of the Mountain King]
Mist [UK première]
Glacial Nocturne [UK première]
Humoresques for violin and orchestra, Opp.87 & 89
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 30 May, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
It’s easy to treat Grieg’s score for Ibsen’s own staging of Peer Gynt with disdain, especially in suite form. Yet when one is reminded that the eponymous character is “feckless … completely amoral” and the evening’s conductor is treating the music with the utmost respect and wouldn’t understand the smirk engendered by the Mountain King’s knees-up – given here with a real sense of menace – then one needs to be serious. Ashkenazy brought an edge to the four movements without detracting from the freshness of the opening number; ’Åse’s Death’ was intensely eloquent and Anitra a little more frisky and darting than usual.
Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s two pieces, ten and five minutes respectively, an “autumnal Icelandic landscape shrouded in mist” followed, twenty-five years later in 1998, by a “nocturne of melting or tinkling sounds” proved motive-obsessive and sectional (the first piece) with a TV-movie feel to the second. Linear in design, Sigurbjörnsson’s rather sparse scoring for one each of seven woodwind – piccolo to contra-bassoon – strings and a soupçon of percussion, with piano and harp given prominence in Glacial Nocturne, and a tinge of Berg somewhere in the recesses of Mist, doesn’t preclude ambience. Compositional logic underpins these miniatures while suggesting unfamiliar terrain and unsure direction (in a lost compass sense). Born in Reykjavik in 1938, Sigurbjörnsson – pianist, broadcaster, teacher and prolific composer – was in the audience.
No doubts as to Sibelius’s identity even in the relatively unfamiliar Humoresques, each, depending on the listener, with a story to be told, the violin as lead character. Pekka Kuusisto lives every note. Best perhaps to not always watch his every move and facial gesture given musical identification is wholly in his sound and phrasing (I was occasionally reminded of Nathan Milstein). He brought the pieces to life – sometimes close to the edge intonationally and tonally – and what joy to hear a player willing to take re-creative risks; and what gems these six Humoresques are.
Ashkenazy isn’t a risk taker but there’s no musician more honest. Sibelius Five, slightly compromised architecturally, was expressive, potent and suitably momentous at the first movement’s turning point from ’Tempo molto moderato’ to ’Allegro moderato’ and in the uplifting chorale of the ’Finale’.
For Ashkenazy, music is “indivisible” from life itself. The occasional lurch in tempo may have robbed the symphony of its granite, and brass and timpani were slightly too dominant in the final ascendance, but it was always absorbing and expressively direct. Throughout the concert the Philharmonia sounded like an orchestra that loves playing for him.