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

In concert – Vilde Frang, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven Violin Concerto & Dora Pejačević Symphony

Sakari Oramo

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)
Pejačević
Symphony in F# minor Op.41 (1916-17, rev. 20)

Vilde Frang (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 26 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Pictures (c) Mark Allan

The latter-day uncovering of music from the past two centuries by female composers has not always been determined by its intrinsic quality yet, on the basis of this evening’s account by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony by Dora Pejačević was certainly worth revival.

Born in Budapest and growing up within the Croatian nobility, Pejačević (1885-1923) early on evolved an idiom whose pivoting on the cusp between late-Romanticism and Modernism was well suited to those large-scale instrumental and, latterly, orchestral works that dominate an output curtailed by her death – from kidney failure – at just 37. Certainly, there is nothing at all cautious about her Symphony in F sharp minor, composed during the later stages of the First World War and a piece audibly indebted to though never merely beholden to its times.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Surprisingly, the opening movement is in most respects the weakest – its main Allegro failing to sustain the impact of its impressive slow introduction (Brahms’s First Symphony the likely precursor), in terms of questing harmonic trajectory or purposeful momentum, once the lyrical if rather flaccid second theme has taken hold. The development relies more on rhetoric than motivic ingenuity over its too brief course, followed by an awkwardly modified reprise then a coda whose glowering intensity reveals an intermittent tendency to overscore for the brass.

Such failings are largely absent from what follows. Centred on a soulful melody given to cor anglais, the Andante builds methodically while irresistibly to its pathos-laden climax before subsiding into the lower reaches of the woodwind; while the Scherzo (better placed second in context) utilizes tuned percussion to underpin a progress whose rhythmic vitality is unusual in symphonies from this era. The final Allegro revisits the first movement’s emotional angst, but its relative succinctness on the way to an ultimately cathartic peroration feels securely judged.

Such, at any rate, was the impression left by this performance – the BBCSO responding with alacrity to Sakari Oramo’s belief in music scored, for the most part, with no little imagination for forces including triple woodwind, six horns and four trumpets. If not the masterpiece some might like to believe, Pejačević’s Symphony is evidently worth revival as frequently as, say, that by Korngold – a potent of what this composer would surely have gone on to create. That she enjoyed only a short-lived maturity need not detract from extent of her legacy as it stands.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Despite sustaining a hand injury, Vilde Frang took the stage in the first half for a reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (replacing that by Stravinsky) as brought the genial and restive aspects of its expansive first movement into effortless accord; after which, the variations of the Larghetto were exquisitely delineated then the humour of the final Rondo shot-through with an incisiveness through to the emphatic close. Among the most astute of accompanists, Oramo drew felicitous playing from the BBCSO’s woodwind and a reduced string-section.

As encore, Frang gave an eloquent take on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, Haydn’s theme for the variations in his ‘Emperor’ Quartet. Hopefully those still trying to reconcile the movement-headings of the Pejačević as given erroneously for the Beethoven were not unduly distracted.

For the repertoire in this concert, listen to the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the concert, click here For more on Dora Pejačević, click here – and for more on soloist Vilde Frang, here

BBC Proms – Timothy Ridout, BBC SO / Oramo: Arnold, Walton, Foulds & Bray

BBCSO_Oramo_Ridout_09_CR.Chris Christodoulou

Timothy Ridout (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Foulds Le cabaret Op.72a (1921) [Proms premiere]
Walton
Viola Concerto (1928-9, rev. 1961)
Bray
 Where Icebergs Dance Away (2021) [UK premiere]
Arnold
Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1960-61) [Proms premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 27 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Sakari Oramo tonight returned to the Proms for the first of two concerts as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in a typically wide-ranging programme of British music as commenced with the overture La cabaret that John Foulds penned as incidental music before it became an autonomous item. For all its vaudevillian aura and unabashed razzmatazz, this ‘Overture to a French Comedy’ throws in numerous stylistic curveballs to point up its intent such as Oramo, given an advocacy of this composer stretching back over two decades, underlined with relish.

Although Walton’s music of the 1920s evinces a not dissimilar extroversion, a very different aspect of the composer is evident in his Viola Concerto – heard this evening in its revision for reduced forces but a notable role for harp. It also brought a Proms debut for Timothy Ridout, his burnished tone and unfaltering intonation much in evidence in the first movement with its smouldering pathos and brief if volatile flights of fancy (qualities which suggest Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto as the most likely model) that were carefully integrated into the whole.

The central Vivo was the undoubted highlight of this performance – Ridout’s passagework unflagging even at the tempo indicated by the revision, not least in those syncopated asides that amply delineate the spirit of the times. By contrast, the finale began reticently then only gradually intensified towards a climactic tutti that brought out the best in the BBCSO; after which, Ridout’s take on the coda made it seem almost parenthetical in its overt rumination, while rounding off the whole work with appropriate inevitability and unforced eloquence.

After the interval, a first hearing in the UK for Where Icebergs Dance Away – the most recent orchestral piece by Charlotte Bray, whose Cello Concerto was a highlight of the 2016 season. Inspired by the icy landscapes encountered on a visit to Greenland, this brief yet atmospheric piece – a faster central episode placing the relative stasis on either side into meaningful relief – suggested qualities of greater organic growth and emotional intensification which deserved to be expounded on a larger scale, while never feeling underdeveloped in the present context.

It may have taken six decades to appear at the Proms, but Sir Malcolm Arnold‘s Fifth Symphony – if not the finest of his cycle, is surely its most representative by dint of those confrontational extremes which, in the opening Tempestuoso alone, pit acerbic irony against expressive angst as threaten to overwhelm the movement’s formal logic. That it failed to do so was testament to Oramo’s acuity in keeping this music’s seeming excesses within relative proportion – not least in the violent irresolution of the closing pages, with their stark withdrawal into silence.

Featuring one of Arnold’s most potent melodies, the Andante brought a rapt response by the BBCSO strings and if Oramo drew less than the ultimate terror from the central climax, the transition to the pensive second theme then return to the initial melody were breathtakingly achieved. Neither was there any lack of malevolence or sardonic humour in the scherzo – its energy carrying over into a finale that was paced superbly to a climactic restatement of the Andante‘s melody and its collapse into nothingness. A fitting close to an impressive reading.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Charlotte Bray and Sir Malcolm Arnold, while for more on Timothy Ridout click here

On record – Victoria Borisova-Ollas: Angelus (BIS)

Victoria Borisova-Ollas
Angelus (2008)
The Kingdom of Silence (2003)
Before the Mountains Were Born (2005)
Creation of the Hymn (2013)
Open Ground (2006)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrey Boreyko (Angelus), Martyn Brabbins (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born), Sakari Oramo (Open Ground)

BIS BIS2288 SACD [82’08”]

Producers Thore Brinkmann, Ingo Petry
Engineers Marion Schwebel, Matthias Spitzbarth

Recorded August 2016 (Open Ground), November 2017 (Angelus), August 2019 (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born) in Stockholm Concert Hall

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS issues what is only the second release dedicated to the music of Victoria Borisova-Ollas (b1969), Vladivostok-born and resident in Sweden for almost three decades, superbly played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and sumptuously recorded in Stockholm Concert Hall.

What’s the music like?

UK audiences have had few opportunities to hear Borisova-Ollas, but her piece Wings of the Wind was second at the Masterprize International Music Competition in 1998, and her multi-media drama The Ground Beneath Her Feet was premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2007. Her orchestral writing is confident and assured – drawing on a lineage that takes in such as Rimsky, Glière and Respighi in music which is never less than evocative or atmospheric, but lacks greater expressive focus so as to convey a more arresting personality.

An in memoriam to her teacher Nikolai Korndorf, The Kingdom of Silence duly proceeds as the ‘journey of a life’ from beatific stasis, through episodes of angst and decisiveness, and on to a serene if underwhelming catharsis. More distinctive is Before the Mountains Were Born, the third of this composer’s works to draw inspiration from the Psalms (here No. 94 – ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place’) and whose supplicatory yearning informs a cadenza-like passage for the four principal woodwind prior to a decidedly unexpected close.

The nearest thing here to a showpiece, Open Ground picks up on American minimalist traits in its swift and unrelenting while highly eventful progress to a tellingly evanescent conclusion: a tale of reality and stability which could yet find favour with orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.

Most expansive is Angelus, inspired by a visit to Munich and the sheer range of bell-sounds to be heard there – the result being a ‘morning to evening’ evolution where elements of chant and tintinnabulation are prominent within a texture of lingering and iridescent sonority such as enfolds the senses without engaging the intellect. Moreover, the accumulation of incident toward its centre lacks underlying emotional intensification, or the organ-capped climax any semblance of tension and release. More substantial is Creation of the Hymn – a sequence of variations, on an original theme of some trenchancy, originally written for string quartet and reworked for 15 strings. A range of stylistic associations is evoked, but the astute dovetailing of expressive contrasts and purposeful follow-through to a fervent ending holds the attention.

Does it all work?

Whatever else, this music is certainly good as regards first impressions. Dig deeper, however, and lack of substance in the actual ideas and way by which these generate the larger content is hard to deny – for all that the aural enticement of the orchestration cannot be gainsaid. Nor is there any lack of commitment from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, guided by Messrs Boreyko, Brabbins and Oramo to performances of real virtuosity. Those who already have the earlier disc of Borisova-Ollas’s orchestral music on Phono Suecia will certainly want this too.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with reservations. Wide-ranging sound is on a par with BIS’s customary high standards, while the composer’s annotations are quirky but informative. Hopefully releases of Borisova-Ollas’s chamber and instrumental work will emerge to open-out the perspective on her music.

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the BIS website

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On record – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite (Chandos)

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Sibelius
Lemminkäinen Suite Op.22 (1893-6, rev. 1897/1900/1939)
Spring Song Op.16 (1894, rev. 1895)
Belshazzar’s Feast: Suite Op.51 (1906-07)

Chandos CHAN20136 [71’34”]

Producer Ann McKay
Engineers Neil Pemberton and Rob Winter

Recorded 22-23 May 2018 at the Colosseum, Watford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sakari Oramo extends his discography with this recording of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite in partnership with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (whose chief conductor he has been these past five seasons), coupled with two rarities among the composer’s shorter orchestral pieces.

What’s the music like?

Emerging from an abandoned opera, the Lemminkäinen Suite followed Kullervo as Sibelius’s second major symphonic work before his actual First Symphony. It only reached its definitive guise over a decade after the composer’s last notable piece, was unpublished until three years before his death and remains on the edge of the repertoire. Opting for the order of movements at its 1896 premiere, Oramo draws a vibrant response in Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island with its heady alternation between energy and ecstasy – underlining its emotional rhetoric without undue histrionics. Sibelius’s masterpiece from this period, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela is more focussed in form and expression – Oramo pointing up the contrast between its stark depiction of the underworld with the premonitions of the hero’s mother at its centre.

Closing with the two shorter movements risks selling short this suite’s overall trajectory, but Oramo ensures their continuity through his searching take on The Swan of Tuonela (soulful cor anglais playing from Alison Teale) such as forms a potent contrast with Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey in which the hero marks his being restored to life with a hectic return to the human world. Others have favoured a more headlong approach, but Oramo’s building of cumulative anticipation makes for tangible excitement on the way to a resolute conclusion.

As to the other pieces here, Spring Song was once among Sibelius’s most performed pieces but long ago fell from grace. As Oramo hears it, what can feel a rather half-hearted re-run of Grieg or Svendsen assumes darker and more equivocal shades prior to its hymnic apotheosis – even if the coda still sounds perfunctory. A suite drawn from incidental music for Hjalmar Procopé’s Belshazzar’s Feast has had advocates (such as the late Gennady Rozhdestvensky) and deserves more frequent revivals. Oramo brings out the ominous undertow of Oriental Procession, as also the musing pathos of Solitude (with its wistful interplay of viola and cello) then the evocative arabesques of Nocturne, before rounding off this sequence with the ingratiating poise of Khadra’s Dance – evidently a direct descendant of that by Anitra.

Does it all work?

Yes. Oramo established himself in the UK through his probing cycle of Sibelius symphonies when music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and this account of the Lemminkäinen Suite completes his traversal of the larger symphonic works (his 2015 Proms reading of Kullervo can be found as a covermount disc on BBC Music Magazine, Volume 25 no.12) in fine style. The recorded sound has all the requisite depth and perspective necessary for this music, and there are typically informative booklet notes courtesy of Anthony Burton.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The discography for each of these pieces is now considerable but, for its interpretive insight, committed playing and impressive sound, this release gets a strong recommendation. Hopefully Oramo and the BBCSO will soon follow it up with a disc of Sibelius’s tone poems.

Stream

Buy

You can buy this release directly from the Chandos website