Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Nielsen: Rhapsody Overture “En fantasirejse til Faeroene”, FS 123
Berg: Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5
Robert Uchida (violin)
Alexander Prior (conductor)
Friday, November 24, 2017
Nielsen’s picturesque and evocative rhapsody overture En fantasirejse til Faeroene might be better known to English-speaking audiences if only there could be a general agreement on how to translate it into English – it’s variously A Fantastic journey to the Faroe Islands, or An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands, or An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands, or… well, you get the idea.
The Faroe Islands (or Faeroe Islands) are a stunningly beautiful archipelago of rugged, Nordic islands about 320 kms dead north of Scotland, and have been under Danish (or Norwegian-Danish) control since the 14th century (for some stunning photographs of the Islands by the Danish photographer Mads Peter Iversen, click here). Nielsen was commissioned to write the overture for the occasion of a visit by a Faroese delegation to Denmark, held in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He intended it as an overtly programmatic work, and at the first performance there was a list of the events depicted in the piece: the calm sea on the start of the voyage, seeing the land on arrival, the dancing and singing to welcome the visitors, the farewell as they leave, and the calm at sea again.
There are strong touches here of the other great Nordic tone poet, Sibelius, and perhaps even a nod right back to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is in essentially two moods or parts – the very evocative foggy start of the ocean journey, and the lively, folk dance mood of the celebrations (with a rambunctiousness that reminds one of Charles Ives in a similar mood). Nielsen weaves genuine Faroe folk-tunes into the work, including a gloriously noble long-breathed Sibelian theme, and, with its elliptical arch shape, the work is a most satisfying and evocative northern seascape painting.
That conductor Alexander Prior should chose to open the concert with this lesser-known work is a reflection of a personal touch that is already evident, only two months after the beginning of his inaugural season as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. Nielsen is one of his favourite composers, and if his music is not (yet) that well known to Edmonton audiences, it does seem so suitable for our northern winter city, with its rugged lyricism, its incisiveness, its combination of the emotional and the pragmatic. Two things are also emerging from Prior’s ascendance to the Winspear podium: his emphasis on colour and tone, be the the colour of an individual instrument, an orchestral section, or the whole orchestra, and his willingness to stamp a strong personal interpretation on a work.
The former came out in the lower string playing that opens the work, a kind of murmur of fog seeping up over the sea on the start of the voyage – emotive, quiet playing from an orchestra who have not in the past been noted for really quiet playing – and in his willingness to let individual instruments go for a less obvious tone colour: the more raucous (and very effective) cry of a seagull on the clarinet, for example, in place of the more mellow romantic bird call usually heard. He is also (related to that idea of individual colour) requiring a precision, a crispness of playing that hasn’t always been as evident in the ESO’s sound in the past. That is making new demands on the orchestra, to which it is clearly responding (even if the playing was a little ragged after the first woodwind entry), and doubtless will continue to do so. Here Nielsen’s work emerged as both rugged and alluring, and the performance must have won many in the audience over to its beauties.
The Berg Violin Concerto also makes considerable demands on both soloist and orchestra, and if again the orchestra had moments when they weren’t entirely comfortable in Berg’s idiom, first it hasn’t had many opportunities to play in that idiom, and second this is exactly the kind of music into which an orchestra grows as it becomes more familiar with playing it. Nor did such moments impeded a moving performance, for the solo playing of Robert Uchida (the concertmaster of the ESO) was gorgeous, at times beautifully understated, an equal among equals in the orchestra, at times gently whimsical, floating through the often chamber-like combination of instruments in Berg’s scoring, and throughout with pure and lovely tone, especially in the higher ranges of the solo writing. The end, that dying away sigh, was beautifully played by both soloist and orchestra.
Conservative managements have traditionally been wary of programming works like the Berg Violin Concerto, but this concert showed why they don’t need to be. First, it has been noticeable since the 25-year old Prior has become chief conductor that there are a lot of much younger people attending alongside the more familiar older faces. Indeed, one of my former pupils at the University of Alberta came up to me after the concert to re-introduce himself – it was the first time he had ever been to a symphony concert, and not only had he enjoyed it, but would be coming again.
All this is marvellous, and one hopes it continues, for it is the life-blood of the orchestra’s future. But younger audiences do expect more challenging experiences. The Berg Violin Concerto was introduced at some length (perhaps just a little too long) and very effectively by Prior, Uchida, and the organist Jeremy Spurgeon, who played on the piano the Bach chorale on which some of the concerto’s material is based, and who had worked with Uchida for over a month preparing the performance. This introduction was pitched just right, explaining – with musical illustrations – how the work is constructed, and its links both to previous musics and to the street life of Berg’s Vienna. That this undoubtedly helped the audience was demonstrated in the post-concert talk in the foyer, when one more elderly member of the audience explained how she had not been looking forward to the Berg. However, after that introduction she had listened to it, her eyes closed, and had clearly been very moved by its beauties.
Prior’s passion for thinking through a work – and re-thinking it if necessary – permeated the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 that closed the concert. Tchaikovsky is so often played, especially in the west, as the arch-romantic, in performances that wallow in the poignancy of the themes, and highlight Tchaikovsky’s apparently self-indulgent longings and yearnings. There is of course a place for such approaches – Tchaikovsky’s popularity is based on that emotional indulgence – but there are those (myself included) who haven’t always been comfortable with his music because of that sentimental arch-Romanticism.
Prior’s approach – equally valid, and following a Russian conducting tradition – is, as he told us in his introduction to the work, to blow away those cobwebs and return the music to a much more direct, almost classical, interpretation, devoid of sentimentality. What a compelling performance this was, too. No big rallentandos (apart from one right at the end) or accelerandos here, no indulgently slow tempi, no quasi-portimento, no heavy vibrato. Instead, clean, rigid rhythms, the marches given with a kind of clockwork precision, crisp playing out of a Classical rather than a Romantic tradition (it made me think forward as much to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony as to the Shostakovitch Prior suggested in his introduction).
The result – especially in the first and last movements – was to present a harsher, harder, more sinuously anguished Tchaikovsky, one that could both appeal to those like me who are antithetical to the Romantic approach to composer, and provide a kind of revelation to those who only know the composer from such Romantic performances. The interpretation was perhaps a little too dry at the end of the second movement (it made me think that Prior could perhaps approach this section with the same combination of harder sounds and evocation that he had secured in the Nielsen), but the waltz came across more ironically (especially well judged were the little brass snarls in the opening), and, most important, the music did indeed so clearly work with this approach.
This was one of those performances that can make one completely re-evaluate a work. To make it happen, the orchestra had to play it (perhaps, indeed, against their traditions and instincts) with absolute precision and crispness, and that’s exactly what they did. Solo sections from clarinet and horn were beautifully phrased (and played), pure legato, and the entire brass section played with an accuracy and verve they haven’t always displayed.
The enthusiasm and the wide age range of the (very full) audience, the passion of some of the orchestral playing, the willingness to present more challenging or lesser-known works, and a conductor who is clearly not only passionate about music, but can produce new insights into that music – all this augers well for where the ESO is going.