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Archive 2
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Northern Lights
Oliver Moor

Bridgewater Hall
Sibelius: Finlandia
Greig: Piano Concerto in A Minor
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1
Halle Orchestra / Osmo Vanska

Scandinavian favourites were on offer at the Bridgewater Hall last night with both of the Nordic masters, Grieg and Sibelius, being represented by two of their best-known works. Osmo Vanska, the noted Sibelius specialist, was on hand again after last weekís sparkling performance of the Lemminkainen Legends. This evening saw a return to more standard repertoire, but the execution was anything but ordinary.

Perhaps it takes a Scandinavian to get under the skin of these sometimes enigmatic composers. Vanska, who began his conducting career in Helsinki, and whose work and contributions to BIS's Complete Sibelius Edition are well known, is certainly more than capable of doing so.

Under his baton, the Halle whipped Finlandia along markedly faster than is usual -- thankfully. Too often played at a supposedly 'majestic' tempo, the great hymn of Finnish protest against Russian oppressors has become flabby, a vast shout of blaring brass and yawning strings. Although billed at the time as a Finnish 'Land of Hope and Glory', the current vogue is to play it as a ponderous plod: a remembrance, perhaps, of the golden days of protest, just as Elgar's work is a memory of Empire but which has little real meaning today. Played at this higher speed, Finlandia regains its potency. The C-minor entry of the brass was a real rabble-rouser, as fine a call to action as machine-gun fire, and the strings, led by Lyn Fletcher, swept the yearning main theme along bravely towards the heady conclusion. This managed to combine poignancy with power, rather than merely being deafening (as is so often the case). The only problem, of course, was that the work had not seemed long enough and that we appeared to have time on our hands.

This was apparently to be addressed by the young French pianist, Francois-Frederic Guy, who lingered for an absolute eternity over the bravura opening of the Grieg. Although deserving its popularity, the Piano Concerto in A-Minor has become cliched, and it takes something very special to allow it to become more than a familiar, slightly dull friend. Guy's opening attack achieved this, although at the time it seemed arrogant and overly self-conscious. After hearing the rest of the opening movement, however, it made more sense, and on reflection seemed a deliberate, considered announcement of the piece rather than the usual flashiness. Guy's phenomenal power at the keyboard was never in doubt during the cadenza - at time it seemed as if the Steinway was about to go through the floor of the stage, but he combined this with a sublime delicacy during the slow movement and an impressive agility during the rondo of the last. The work, so over-played, regained much of the life which has been thumped out of it over the hundred-odd years since Grieg wrote it.

Programming an evening like this must be problematic: pairing Finlandia and the world's most popular piano concerto together in the first half necessitates something with a little more depth to it in the second, in order to avoid accusations of dumbing down, and with Sibelius's First Symphony this requirement was, to a degree, addressed. Never the most popular of his symphonies (that must surely be either the Second or the Fifth), the First was begun in 1898 and performed for the first time a year later. It is remarkable to think that this symphony was performed only six years after Tchaikovsky had debuted his Sixth Symphony. Sibelius does not merely continue down the Romantic road, perhaps seeing that it would become a cul-de-sac: even at the dawn of his symphonic career he is making forays along a new path along which Schostakovich and Stravinsky will also travel. But he is very much his own man, and with this work his voice is established, boldly and brilliantly. Again, Vanska paced the work faster than that usually heard, and, after giving the solo clarinet a languid, melancholy opening, allowed the Halle free reign. The Allegro energico sparkled, and the Andante, which can be ìbittyî in less sure hands, came together as a marvellous whole. The Scherzo was poised, precise, and highly dramatic, with masterful work from the percussion section, and the mighty finale impassioned without being a wallow.

The only irritating moment came at the end of the concert. The final two pizzicato chords which finish the work need time for reflection, but the applause began before that moment came, almost as soon as the last note had been plucked. There are two things this can mean to a conductor - either that the performance has been so marvellous the audience cannot hold itself back, or that the audience has a pressing engagement elsewhere and wants to be off. Maestro Vanska appeared to interpret the acclaim as the latter, glaring thunderously at the offending clappers and stalking offstage with no thought of an encore. The orchestra, in addition, stood grimly to attention without so much as a smile. Why canít orchestral players look happy when they've finished a concert? They played well, so why not acknowledge the (deserved) applause? This aside, my memories of my first visit to the spectacular Bridgewater Hall will live long -and my CD collection likely to feature more recordings from the Halle Orchestra and Osmo Vanska.

© Oliver Moor 2001

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