The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid [BBC co-commission with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choirs: world premiere]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Symphony No.5

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)
Gert Henning-Jensen (tenor)
Danish National Girls’ Choir

Lars Vogt (piano)

Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The first of two mermaids at this year’s Proms (the second is in Zemlinsky’s opulent tone poem on 4 September), Bent Sørensen’s work based on fellow-Dane Hans Christian Andersen’s most personal fairy-tale was an essay in ethereal layering. Here receiving its world premiere, “The Little Mermaid” seemed ideally created for the Proms, requiring two sections of the Danish National Girls’ Choir to be placed antiphonally at either side of the Arena, singing towards the third group on the platform. The girls tell Andersen’s tale, in truncated form. Overlapping, Inger Dam-Jensen took assumption of the mermaid herself, an extended vocalise following the muted trombones’ impersonation of the witch who had cut out the mermaid’s tongue (this is not one of Andersen’s more pleasant tales).

There was a third layer, sung by bright-tenor Gert Henning-Jensen. His words were diary entries by Andersen, including the last words he ever wrote, before dying a few hours later. Accompanied by the only woodwinds, pairs of oboes and bassoons, the tenor’s interruptions formed an acerbic commentary on the fairy-tale elements, although ultimately rather poignant.

Sørensen’s scoring, despite the deployment of a large group of strings and brass, was almost constantly filigree, and the simple lines of the girls’ choruses were extraordinarily appealing, the whole amounting to a bittersweet, almost half-remembered, view of childhood, tempered with harsh realities. With Thomas Dausgaard keeping his spread-out forces in touch with one other, the concentration, but also the dividends, for such commitment was evident.

I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to Grieg’s Piano Concerto, one of the old war-horses I tend to avoid outside of Proms seasons. Yet there was much in Lars Vogt’s second performance at the Proms to enjoy (the first was with the CBSO and Rattle in 1992), especially the quieter passages. And there was no doubting the full-blooded orchestral support whipped up by Dausgaard’s very visual conducting style. While watching Vogt closely, Dausgaard jabbed at the orchestra (without baton), and swirled and gesticulated to get every ounce of melodrama out of the music. It worked pretty well, or at least my fears of having to sit through such hackneyed music were tempered by a more gracious acknowledgement of Grieg’s achievement than I had thought possible.

So to Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony which, it has been argued, is the greatest 20th-century symphony. And in many ways this performance proved as much – despite the chinking ice-cubes swirling in the drinking-glasses behind me coming from the hospitality boxes. The musicians – admittedly with this music in their blood – played magnificently.

Then I noticed that none of them were watching Dausgaard – who looks like a cross between John Eliot Gardiner and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Dausgaard – again baton-less – pirouetted, swung, and ducked and dived, even more than in the Grieg. It was as if he had to act out Nielsen’s music for the benefit of either his players or the audience. Very quickly such antics began to grate enormously and I wished I were at home listening.

The performance was an excellent one, but as far as I’m concerned it was ‘Players 3 : (Panto) Mime Conductor 0’. The audience roared – I hoped for the music – although I fear it may have been for Dausgaard’s showmanship. We got an encore (such things rather rare this season) – Tango Jalousie by Jacob Gade (no relation to and not to be confused with Niels Gade) with a starring violin solo for the lady leader. Here Dausgaard’s antics came unstuck; his silly gestures caught the players off-balance and there were some untidy entries.

Come back orchestra – but leave the Danish Marcel Marçeau behind, please!

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