Royal Stockholm Philharmonic

Exquisite Corpse [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
The Echo-Nymph, Op.72/4
On a Veranda by the Shore, Op.38/2
Black Roses, Op.36/1
Idylls and Epigrams of J. L. Runeberg, Op.4 (two selections)
The Forest Sleeps, Op.28/6
The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19 – Suite

Joshua Bell (violin)

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the most-welcome aspects of the Proms season is the opportunity to hear orchestras from around the world, not just high-profile ensembles from the main capitals. To my knowledge, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic has not previously performed in the UK under chief conductor Alan Gilbert (who made a generally favourable impression with the LPO back in 2002), and the rapport evident at this Prom suggested their four seasons together have been cordially and productively spent.

Despite (because of?) its vibrant arts scene, Sweden has been surprisingly reticent in promoting its contemporary composers (though events scheduled during next season suggest this is now changing). The music of Anders Hillborg has been little heard in the UK – and, on the basis of Exquisite Corpse, his is an appealing if not markedly distinctive voice. A resourceful one, though, as was demonstrated by the orchestral command and technical finesse of this piece from 2002. Deriving its title from a game cum formal process beloved of the Surrealist movement, the piece unfolds unobtrusively across a 14-minute span – beginning with wide-spaced string harmonies that sound like a strange alliance of Ligeti’s Lontano and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, building to a forceful apex in which chorale-like writing for brass is underpinned by animated percussion, concluding with a rapt string passage in which the polyphony from near the opening of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony is somewhat self-consciously alluded to. Played with assurance by the RSPO, this was no more than the sum of its parts, but engaging enough to suggest that Hillborg is a composer worth investigation.

Cultural commentators might balk at the presence of a Finnish violin concerto in the tour programme of a Swedish orchestra, but enmities are no more and, in any case, featuring the Sibelius with Joshua Bell was a sure crowd-pleaser. Bell remains an ambivalent musician – as technically well equipped as any violinist active today, yet often unwilling or unable to instil his performances with a definable interpretative angle. You could feel him leaning on phrases in the later stage of the first movement’s developmental cadenza, trying to rend an expression that refused to surface; while the Adagio risked losing shape in its central climaxes, such that it needed all of Gilbert’s conducting acumen to keep it formally on track. Gilbert it was who sustained continuity in the opening Allegro – the orchestral tuttis at the close of the exposition and prior to the return of the second theme taking on the guise of structural pillars that accorded the movement coherence. The finale struck a balance between caprice and virtuosity – Gilbert marginally over-pointing the climactic return to the main theme, but ensuring that Bell had a secure basis for his would-be-uninhibited flights of fancy.

Lucky the Swedish orchestra that can call on Anne Sofie von Otter, as she has been her country’s most significant cultural ambassador these past two decades. And, as attendees of her recitals will know, her commitment to Scandinavian song is total. She brought out the charm, and the mystery, in two of Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Runeberg songs – the winsome “The Girl on St John’s Night” and the more elaborate call and response of “The Girl came from Meeting her Lover” – translucent and less fulsomely Wagnerian than their date (1893) might suggest of this composer so early in his career. The three Sibelius songs – the deftly humorous “The Echo-Nymph”, the barely-suppressed anxiety of “On a Veranda by the Shore”, and the impulsive mood-swings of “Black Roses” – gave a fine idea of their composer’s prowess in the medium, and the advertised sequence ended with the atmospheric melancholy of “The Forest Sleeps” by Hugo Alfvén. A pity the audience saw fit to applaud after almost every song, but it did not discourage Otter from adding a lively number by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (“Aspåkers Polka”) and a ruminative one from Grieg (“A Swan”) to round off her admirable contribution.

Gilbert returned for a characterful account of the suite (which seems to have yielded in frequency of performance to the complete ballet in recent years) from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. This is music easy to over-project, something from which Gilbert wisely refrained – focussing instead on the dance dimension of a score which moves forcibly yet seamlessly from its opening evocation of traffic noise to a chase sequence which remains among the most emotionally febrile passages in all music. Without indulging in dynamic overkill, Gilbert conveyed the necessary impact, and distilled a cumulative sensuousness to the Girl’s dance that brought out the best in the orchestra’s ensemble – which on this evidence is generally secure across a wide repertoire.

A well-balanced and finely-executed concert, then – and further enhanced by an encore in the guise of the ‘Interlude’ from Stenhammar’s final masterpiece, The Song (1924). Noble and warm-hearted (and uncannily Elgarian!), as is the cantata as a whole – a work deserving of wider dissemination on disc and in the concert hall than has been its fate.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 12 August at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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