Swedish Chamber Orchestra

Symphony in C, VB138Rabe
Sardine Sarcophagus
HK Gruber
Three MOB Pieces
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 23 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thomas Dausgaard is formidable. Under his direction the Swedish Chamber Orchestra is tightly drilled and yet plays willingly, exultantly, with panache and bravura. It won my respect for every piece and every note.

Consider the first bars of Kraus’s Symphony in C. Nonchalantly, it seemed, the strings offered a self-assured display of control. Kraus – born in the same year as Mozart, dying merely one year later – wrote this symphony in 1781, aged 25. Kraus had a musical mind of his own. His writing is mercurial and full of surprises. He was a match for Mozart. Throughout, sparing forces (strings, flutes and horn) are used to telling effect. The symphony (in C major) begins with a slow introduction – in C minor. The vigorous opening allegro theme, in striking, arresting unison, is never heard again (c.f. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1). In a series of intriguing, captivating, restless key changes, there was no guessing where the music might dart to next. The SCO paid meticulous attention to all these threads and seeming loose ends, and thoroughly enjoyed the more straightforward 6/8 finale in hunting style.

Sardine Sarcophagus and Three MOB Pieces are showpieces for Håkan Hardenberger’s riveting trumpet playing. In Sardine Sarcophagus, Folke Rabe pays twinkle-eyed respect to an empty sardine factory. (It houses Bergen’s Music Factory Festival, which commissioned the piece.) At the same time, he recalls Seville where, annually, a sardine is solemnly and ceremoniously buried during Holy Week rituals – together with Goya’s lugubrious depiction of same.

A pair of solid wooden tubes opened the piece. Syncopated rhythms chattered, stopped, ran out of inconsequentiality, then started again. The delight, the intrigue and the suspense were engrossing. Rabe’s soundworld is often light-hearted – with unexpected carefree bird-like sounds; occasionally, it turns po-faced, with tongue well in cheek; it gives jazz idiom and folk music houseroom; and then suddenly turns deadly serious for a tantalising moment. We heard increasingly dark and impassioned references to the opening song of Mahler’s Song of the Earth. The trumpet part was itself an aria, declaring these changes of mood.

Gruber’s soundworld is just as individual. It is an ‘entertainment’, (shades of Grahame Greene dividing his fiction into ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’). Tonight’s version was specially written for Hardenberger and first performed in 1999. I preferred it to the 1977 version. The predominant trumpet renders these jaunty, sketchy pieces more robust, with darker hues. There’s greater variety and greater musical interest now.

The Beethoven was riveting, forward-moving and thrusting, but not rushed. There was a keen sense of Beethoven’s pulse, of his musical restlessness and fertility. The SCO hurtled up to heights and plunged into troughs, in the flow of a restless sea. Ideas and variations sped past. I sensed, as never before, the musical chatter that went on in this great man’s head. Small forces enabled woodwind to contribute tellingly. Even so – lithe, vigorous and yet impassioned – the strings lost none of their power to thrill. The quiet, brooding, night-music of the slow introduction rivalled Mahler or Gruber. We knew that, somewhere in this stillness, boxes of fireworks lay unpacked, ready for lighting.

There’s a strong dose of Dausgaard in this interpretation of Beethoven, but this conductor’s keen intelligence, musical ear and alertness to idiom produce a performance that brought Beethoven to life – with splendour. The encore, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1, was most extraordinarily exciting. Hungarian villagers whirled around winter bonfires, as never before; then the music slowed down outrageously during the ‘Viennese’ phrases, bringing us languid, yearning violin solos in the warmth of an urban coffee-house. The rendition was slightly mannered – but it sharpened the contrast inherent in the music and ended a glittering display of virtuosity and musical commitment from a terrific orchestra.

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