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

On record: Oberon Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven, Dvořák, Grieg & Langgaard

oberon

Beethoven: Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’; Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor (Rohan de Saram (cello), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 19th October, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt – Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Langgaard: Symphony No. 4 ‘Løvfald’ (UK premiere); Sibelius: Symphony No.5 (Oberon Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 27th September, 2014

Now nearing the end of its fourth season, the Oberon Symphony has already established itself as an orchestra equally at home in the standard repertoire and relatively unfamiliar music; its conductor, Samuel Draper, as attentive to the letter of the score in question as to the spirit that informs it. These discs, comprising two out of its 13 concerts to date, typify the questing spirit of its performances: these are presented unedited, with no attempt to disguise passing flaws in ensemble or intonation – not that this lessens appreciation of some committed music-making.

What’s the music like?

The first disc juxtaposes two seminal pieces from either end of the 19th century. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony has been described as the last of his works where beauty of sound and richness of texture predominate, and Draper acknowledges this in his unforced approach to the opening Allegro then his leisurely though never sluggish handling of its Andante. Some felicitous woodwind playing here (not least with the interplay of bird-calls towards its close) is further evident in the scherzo, even if the earnest characterization arguably pre-empts the ‘Storm’ movement which emerges as sombre rather than elemental. The highlight is a finale that rightly carries the expressive weight of the whole, its progress underpinned by an elusive if tangible onward motion which holds good through to a radiant climax and searching close.

The performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto features Rohan de Saram, for many years the cellist of the Arditti Quartet and a soloist whose perspective on arguably the finest work in its genre is distinctive and refreshing. Thus the initial Allegro is rendered with the necessary emotional breadth, its expansive though never unduly protracted formal design confidently unfolded despite passing technical fallibilities, while the central Adagio is even finer in its mingling of wistfulness with those passionate outbursts as open-out the music’s expression accordingly. De Saram’s inward eloquence comes into its own both here and in the extended coda to the finale, an inspired afterthought (prompted by the death of the composer’s sister-in-law) whose intense retrospection makes the concluding bars more affirmative in context.

The second disc has the Oberon SO venturing into more esoteric realms with the UK premiere of the Fourth Symphony by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Langgaard (1893-1952) is among the more prominent instances of a creative figure who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, yet between his heady early success and the neglect prevalent from the mid-1920s onwards is a series of works that ought to have established him among the leading European composers of his generation. Not least the Fourth Symphony (1916): its subtitle, ‘Fall of the Leaf’, is often rendered as ‘Autumn’ though the seasonal process of change and decay surely has a metaphysical and even apocalyptic resonance. Its single movement, in eight continuous sections, is best heard as an expanded sonata-form design overlaid by continuous variation.

Certainly the plunging gesture with which it opens sets the tone for what follows and Draper amply brings out this fatalistic defiance, then ensures a seamless transition into the plaintive second main theme whose opulent expansion on strings at the end of the exposition is among the work’s highpoints. Nor does the central span risk diffusiveness, Draper as attentive to the geyser-like eruptions on strings and woodwind at its apex as to the mesmeric transition when oboe unfolds a plangent melodic line over a string cluster of inward intensity. Exposed string writing is for the most part securely managed, and while Draper cannot quite prevent the final stages from hanging fire, he secures the necessary momentum heading into the coda with its startling bell-like ostinatos, then a final build-up in which dread and decisiveness are as one.

This concert commences with three pieces from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. ‘Morning’ is rapturously expressive, while ‘The Death of Åse’ avoids undue vehemence, its inward final bars preparing for a ‘Solveig’s Song’ whose indelible main melody never becomes cloying.
Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is given a sympathetic if not always ideally focussed reading. The first movement is finely launched, Draper ensuring the altered exposition repeat has the right cumulative intensity, with the majestic central climax moving convincingly into its ‘scherzo’ continuation where progress can be fitful, yet the coda lacks little in velocity. More debatable is a second movement which emerges as a slow intermezzo, its progress having insufficient lightness of touch as the music takes on a greater ambivalence prior to its winsome close. In the finale, Draper elides ideally between the surging impetus and airborne rapture of its main themes; if Sibelius’ ingenious design feels at times uncertain, neither the glowing affirmation of its coda nor the decisiveness of those six closing chords (taken ‘in tempo’) can be gainsaid.

Does it all work?

On both discs, the warm while occasionally diffuse sound is in keeping with the acoustic of St. James’s Sussex Gardens, with the booklets including full personnel for each concert and some excellent booklet notes (notably from Hannah Nepil on Dvořák and Andrew Mellor on Langgaard) – though Draper’s name might reasonably have featured on both the front covers.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The discs are obtainable either at the Oberon SO’s concerts (the next of these is on September 17th), or directly via the orchestra’s website