Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in New York/Anne Sofie von Otter

Flickan knyter i Johannenatten, Op.4/2
Kaiutar, Op.72/4
Demanten på marssnön, Op.36/6
Kom bukken til gutten Op.12/1
Fridolins lustgård – Aspåkerspolska
Skogen sover, Op.28/6
Kristina fran Duvemåla – Hemma
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 22 October, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, ably conducted by Alan Gilbert, returned to Carnegie Hall after a long absence for two concerts on 22 and 23 October. This first one featured Scandinavian orchestral songs, sung by Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, followed by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Although it has been more than 20 years since the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic last performed in New York, the energetic and talented Alan Gilbert, who has served as its Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor since 2000, is no stranger to these parts. The 37-year-old Gilbert was (figuratively) born in a violin case at the New York Philharmonic, where both of his parents were violinists and became his first music teachers. With several guest-conducting appearances at the New York Philharmonic already under his belt, Gilbert has been engaged to conduct there for two weeks in each of the next three seasons, an arrangement that parallels his similar ongoing relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also serves as Music Director of the Santa Fe Opera and appears frequently as a guest conductor of many major American and European orchestras, including the post of Principal Guest Conductor at Hamburg’s NDR Symphony Orchestra.

Perhaps quite naturally the Royal Stockholm musicians seemed to feel most comfortable with the Scandinavian portion of the programme, an impression that was confirmed by the orchestra’s masterful performance – as an encore – of the ‘Interlude’ from Wilhelm Stenhammar’s “The Song”. Indeed, the lush, velvety sound of the strings in that selection surpassed the playing in the Mahler. And the orchestra’s skilful way with the Scandinavian orchestral songs was further aided by the craftsmanship of Otter, who was in fine voice and sang beautifully and idiomatically. This was hardly surprising; she is after all pre-eminent in this repertoire.

Orchestral song-settings achieved great popularity throughout Scandinavia in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Even songs originally composed for voice and piano were typically arranged for orchestra, if not by their composers then by others; Sibelius’s “Kaiutar”, for example, was performed in an orchestration by Jussi Jalas. The collection of songs on this occasion, most of which were only about two to three minutes in duration, exhibited a variety of styles: some had a rather folk-music-like feeling while others fell more into the art-song tradition of sub-Baltic Europe. The highlights of the group lay at both ends of this spectrum.

Among the more folkloric songs, the pick was Otter’s rendition of Swedish composer Wilhelm Petersen-Berger’s “Aspåkerspolska” (Aspåker’s Polka); she all but danced, swaying to the music as she sang the lilting melody. This composer was also represented on the programme by “Kom bukken til gutten” (Come, Little Buck, to the Boy), the only song of the evening with a Norwegian text. Sounding perhaps somewhat less like folk music, but nevertheless charming in its folkloric subject matter, was Otter’s opening song, Stenhammar’s “Flickan knyter i Johannenatten” (The Girl on St. John’s Night), which describes the Swedish Midsummer-eve tradition in which a girl ties coloured threads onto sprouting plants, with the colour of the shoot that grows highest overnight predicting whether the maiden’s future will bring her sorrow, joy or love.

Particularly noteworthy among the songs in the ‘art’ tradition was the performance of “Kaiutar”, which relates the mythic tale from the Kalevala of the ‘Echo Nymph’ who, having been abandoned on the moors by a deceitful lover, takes revenge on mankind by leading travellers astray through imitation and mockery of their words. Otter captured not only the sardonic humour of the song, but also the bleakness of its forbidding landscape. This was the evening’s only Finnish text; most of Sibelius’s songs are in Swedish, including “Demanten på marssnön” (The Diamond on the March Snow), which Otter rendered with a distinctive elegance. Jalas’s orchestral setting of “Kaiutar” creates an impressionistic vision of a mythical wilderness, a picture enhanced by the orchestra’s fine principal harpist, Laura Stephenson. Similarly, in the opening passages of Hugo Alfvén’s “Skogen sover” (The Forest Is Asleep) the orchestra evoked the serenity of a quiet forest, with Otter’s vocal line soaring high above.

The last song in the group was “Hemma” (At Home) by Benny Andersson, a co-founder of ABBA. This song comes from the 1995 musical “Kristina fran Duvemåla” based on Vilhelm Moberg’s epic “Emigrants” novels, and attests to the continuing influence of folkloric elements in Swedish music. Rather surprisingly, Otter used a microphone despite having been heard quite well in the previous songs. Perhaps this was merely an attempt to replicate the overly-miked environment in which musicals are invariably performed nowadays. However, that rationale would not explain Otter’s use of the microphone for her beautifully sung encore, “My Ship”, Kurt Weill’s setting of an Ira Gershwin lyric from the 1941 Broadway show “Lady in the Dark”. Since Otter, just moments earlier, had filled the hall with sound as Gilbert capably maintained a sensitive control of the orchestra’s dynamics, the use of a microphone in these two numbers was disappointing at best.

There is a long historical connection between Mahler’s music and Carnegie Hall. The composer conducted his symphonic works there both before and during his service as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1909-1911, and successors in that position – most notably Mahler’s assistant and protégé, Bruno Walter, and later Leonard Bernstein – continued that tradition until the orchestra departed Carnegie Hall for Lincoln Center in 1962. It was largely through their efforts that Mahler’s music finally attained the position of high regard that it enjoys today.

Gilbert and the RSPO gave a moving, but imperfect, reading of Mahler’s Fifth. The ensemble’s playing generally measured up to the work’s many challenges and complexities, showing off Mahler’s fascinating array of orchestral colours as varied combinations of instruments emerged, each giving way to the next in succession. The ‘stormy’ second movement, at times reminiscent of Richard Strauss, Wagner and even Beethoven, provided a rich palate of memorable sound pictures. Among these were the juxtaposition of clarinets and cellos early in the movement, the chattering of the high winds over the melodic strings a few minutes later, the magnificent brass chorale near the movement’s end, and the eerie combination of solo trumpet, harp, strings, flute, piccolo and bassoon just before the music faded away.

All of the principal players excelled in their solo passages, and the woodwinds, harp and lower strings were uniformly excellent throughout the symphony, with the cello section outshining their fellow string players with a warm and radiant sound. On occasion, particularly in the first two movements, the percussion and brass were permitted to overshadow the rest of the orchestra, yet at other times the brass was used to marvellous effect – most notably in the chorale-like passages in the last movement leading up to the work’s ultimate coda. Despite these reservations, the outstanding quality of this venerable ensemble was evident throughout.

In the early going, Gilbert’s interpretation seemed a bit too episodic rather than clearly delineating an intra-movement logic within either the opening funeral march or the succeeding movement. Particularly in the latter, transient effects sometimes were emphasized at the expense of the movement as a whole. At 15 minutes each, the first two movements were on the slow side, although the pace did quicken as the work progressed. However, it was only in the central scherzo that a real sense of an overall conception of the symphony began to emerge clearly. That movement, of course, establishes the major tonality that is to prevail throughout the balance of the work, and its ländler-like dance rhythms contrast sharply with the morbid and angry moods of the preceding movements, although the scherzo does have its own sombre passages. The orchestral colours here were vivid, with the solo horn passages being particularly noteworthy. The sense of the symphony’s overall arc continued to strengthen through the Adagietto, with its haunting and familiar (from the film “Death in Venice”) theme, and the finale, which ran 10 and 16 minutes respectively. The last movement was particularly stirring, the closing passages rising triumphantly to bring the work to an optimistic and highly satisfying close.

The performance’s overall timing of 74 minutes was a trifle slow, but none of the movements felt either rushed or unduly dragged-out. On the whole, this was a warmly-received performance of an always-interesting work.

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