Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto

Scherzo fantastique
Clarinet Concerto
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Kari Kriikku (clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 3 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Semyon Bychkov is an infrequent visitor to London’s orchestras and so may be forgiven for thinking the worst of the city’s reputation for occasional unbridled violence by wearing what suspiciously looked like a bulletproof-vest when first appearing on the podium. Or perhaps he was guarding against a Prommers’ revolt about to hear a recently written concerto by a Finnish composer best known for his Modernist tendencies.

The Russian-born maestro need not have worried; London is experiencing one of its peaceful spells and the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg caused a storm of applause not of protest.

After taking the BBC Symphony Orchestra through its opening paces with Stravinsky’s early Scherzo fantastique, all-shimmering outer sections and a shamelessly Romantic trio, onto the platform came the somewhat diminutive figure of Kari Kriikku, the man with the amazing clarinet. Or so it seemed. Lindberg has put to rest any thoughts of unintelligible modernist sounds in this equally ‘fantastic’ concerto.

From the opening sigh by the soloist, which is a motto ‘theme’ throughout, Lindberg creates an enchanted wood full of the magical sounds of nature in all its forms, sometimes genial or benign, sometimes ferocious or terrifying. The soloist barely stops playing for the half-hour duration and every moment is imbued with a mix of energy, grace and an intoxicating blend of nature in the raw. It is truly an amazing work of art, capturing the bird-songs of the forest so evocatively and, dare one say, accurately for a composer who sat on his Finnish-island summer-retreat and literally composed what he experienced in this wonderland environment.

Lindberg’s music has been somewhat unjustly accused of complexity in the past but this (2002) concerto puts such thoughts firmly to one side. It has a joy of life and a belief in human relationships within a natural environment that are astonishingly accurate.

Which is not to say the work is easy to play. Kari Kriikku wrought spells from his instrument that were truly astounding. Asked (entrusted!) to improvise in the extended cadenza he created sounds of utter novelty. He had collaborated with Lindberg during the composition and it is no wonder that the composer identifies so closely with his soloist’s virtuosity in achieving an incredible array of sonorities from a single instrument. All of which are interwoven with consummate skill into an orchestral fabric that never overpowered the soloist. The orchestra matched the mood of the moment with stunning responsiveness.

Lindberg seems to have reduced his penchant for compositional complexity to very good effect. Rachmaninov’s music provides a deep melancholy and strikes a bargain with music-lovers. Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony took a long time in being accepted and it has now become a repertoire work allowing all kinds of indulgences on the part of conductors. Bychkov kept a firm grip on proceedings although he rightly gave prominence to the central Adagio. This big work (regrettably shorn of its first-movement exposition repeat) allows everyone to connect with their emotions: problems in the world, often thought of as intractable, can be forgotten. Bychkov produced a performance that was vivid, atmospheric and full of incidents. While the BBCSO never produced a lush-enough sound, its keen response to the conductor’s wishes for warmth, precision and emotion made the right connection.

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