In concert – Nicola Benedetti, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Romantics in Exile – Korngold & Langgaard

BBC SO/Oramo & Benedetti - Romantics in Exile

Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Langgaard
Symphony no.1 in B minor BVN32, ‘Mountain Pastorals’ (1908-11)

Nicola Benedetti (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 8 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Concert photos by James Watkins / BBC

Sakari Oramo has certainly blazed a trail for tackling little-known symphonic works during his tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra – witness his recent revival of the Symphony by Dora Pejačević and now that of the First Symphony from Danish anti-hero Rued Langgaard.

One who frequently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Langgaard (below) could not have had a better start to his career than its premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic and Max Fiedler on 10th April 1913, just before his 20th birthday. Its enthusiastic reception was never repeated in his remaining four decades, the composer traversing various stylistic phases while fighting a psychological battle with the Danish musical establishment. With its inspiration in Sweden’s Kullaberg peninsula, this work remains testament to the vaunting ambition of his younger self.

Steering a cohesive course across this almost hour-long piece whose sizable forces (not least four Wagner tubas) is no easy task, but Oramo succeeded more convincingly than on any of the three commercial recordings. Not least in a first movement, Surf and Glimpses of Sun, whose elongated sonata design and increasingly histrionic climaxes could so easily veer into overkill, rather than yielding a recklessly if purposefully cumulative momentum. Mountain Flowers is a slow movement of no mean eloquence, not least with Oramo encouraging the strings to relish the limelight over its opening and closing stages then towards its expressive apex. The undoubted highlight is Legend, less an intermezzo than a dark-hued formal crux whose ominous atmosphere looks on toward those anguished confessionals which lay ahead.

More conventional is Mountain Ascent, a lively and often playful scherzo whose impetus finds ready contrast with the wistful trio at its centre. Rendered here with suitable deftness, this made an admirable foil to Courage – an expansive finale not without its longueurs yet whose development affords some strikingly evocative orchestration, then an apotheosis for which Oramo not only prepared judiciously, but that the BBCSO kept within focus even as the addition of off-stage brass threatened to send those closing pages spinning out of orbit.

An experience, then, such as only a live performance can provide, and which demonstrably played to the strengths of this partnership. Might one hope that Oramo and the BBCSO give Langgaard’s Sixth, arguably his symphonic masterpiece, at a Proms concert in due course?

A thought occurred that had the Danish film industry maintained its promise prior to the First World War, Langgaard might have found as productive an outlet for his abilities as Korngold had for his during the golden age of Hollywood. The latter’s Violin Concerto was not always the familiar item it has now become, and Nicola Benedetti’s rendering assuredly conveyed its essence. Pointing up the discreet contrast between the themes of its opening Moderato, with a trenchant account of its cadenza, she gave a finely shaped if overly generalized account of its central Romance, then projected the final Allegro’s incisiveness and high-flown melodrama with relish. Nor did she undersell the suavity of Jacob Gade’s tango Jalousie – a piece which, 97 years on, confirms what is possible if a composer does not entirely eschew popular appeal.

For further information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here For more on Erich Korngold and Rued Langgaard, click on the composer names – and click on the artist names for more information on Nicola Benedetti and Sakari Oramo

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