Northern Rhapsodies Concert Review – Neil Crutchley

In just over half a century of attending orchestral concerts in the De Montfort Hall, this series of Nielsen symphonies from the Bardi Symphony Orchestra, has been, and continues to be a personal highlight. No other orchestra has had the courage or conviction to embark on such an ambitious project.

Nielsen’s six symphonies are amongst the greatest of the twentieth century yet were it not for the Bardi, we in Leicester, along with most other provincial cities, would hear one (usually the 4th or the 5th) once in a blue moon. In fact it’s possible that the Bardi’s accounts of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies were the first in the city. And what tremendous performances they were! As is usually the case, no allowances for the Bardi’s “non-professional” status were necessary, despite the fact that I suspect most of the players were performing the works for the first time. The same could be said of the Bardi’s searing account of the marginally better known 4th Symphony (The Inextinguishable). 

And now we have the 5th, considered by many to be the composer’s greatest work. What a ground-breaking, compelling and fascinating piece it is. It’s not just the first movement’s extraordinary snare drum outburst that’s arresting; the whole piece is harmonically, tonally and structurally exceptional.

Of course it helps to have a Danish conductor in charge – especially one as inspiring and committed as Claus Efland. He knows every note of these symphonies and he knows exactly what he wants from the music and the players, although I have to take issue with his assertion that Nielsen didn’t produce memorable tunes in this symphony.

It’s an old cliché I’ve used dozens of times in relation to Bardi performances, but it still holds true; the results are astounding. For long periods you would not know you weren’t listening to a professional orchestra. In fact having heard performances of Nielsen’s music from some renowned ensembles, it’s these Leicester performances that are the ones that stay in the mind for their enthusiasm, panache and vigour. Above all they have shown (and I hope, will continue to show) what a strikingly original musical thinker Nielsen was.

This account of the symphony was a remarkable journey in sound and mood – just as the composer wished it to be. His “progressive tonality”, so much easier to hear than explain, leads the ear onwards; surprising and teasing along the way, but ultimately achieving its goal. The playing was exemplary in all departments and it would be unfair to single out any one player or department as this was a truly unified effort.

The first movement began with just the right balance between mystery and tension; the “wavy line” of the violas being clean and precise, providing a rhythmic background to the fragments of melody that follow. It is essential that the tension is maintained here and in what follows and as always, Claus Efland was exemplary in giving the whole movement a strong sense of momentum with vivid dynamic contrasts, well-graded crescendos and incisive rhythmic drive. The highpoint of this movement is the superb string melody that emerges just over half way though, this was allowed to expand and glow (but never to lose momentum) before the snare drum began its persistent, destructive barrage. The closing bars had an extraordinary, eerie stillness about them.

The energy of the second movement was exhilarating right from the opening bars. This is music of optimism, but the hard-won, gritty optimism of a realist. The orchestra’s response to the demands made on it was astounding; enthusiastic, cleanly articulated and supple. The slower, quieter central section provided the necessary respite from the onward rush, but Efland ensured that even here there was a sense of portent and onward movement. The mounting excitement towards the close is edge-of-the-seat stuff with its final glorious blaze of E flat major. Here was my only tiny criticism – the build-up to the “blaze” was not quite as abandoned as I was expecting, but then in preparing the programme notes I had been listening to Bernstein’s recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic and in that conductor’s flamboyant style the closing bars are little short of cataclysmic, so perhaps I was expecting a little too much at that point – even from the Bardi!

 

Katya Apekisheva was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and unusually, she played from the music – with a page turner!  She appeared to be sight-reading at some points (had she never performed this work before?) and it has to be said that this was not the most subtle of performances. However, there were many delights and the piano was audible throughout, which is not always the case in this work. The orchestra’s accompaniment was magnificent, the conductor managing to keep up with the soloist and drawing flexible warm-toned playing from all sections.

The concert began with a good straightforward account of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. The Intermezzo had a jaunty bounce to it and the Alla Marcia, although fairly sedately paced, was nicely phrased, with good dynamics. The Ballade was beautifully done with superb solo playing and an affecting sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

This was a fine concert which will be remembered for yet another superb account of a Nielsen symphony. We’ve only two more (Nos. 1&6) to go before the cycle is complete. I hope it isn’t too long before they appear.