Northern Rhapsodies – Leicester Concert Goers Review

There were three reasons that I found this concert irresistible. Firstly, it featured Katya Apekisheva, a very fine pianist who has over the years been a frequent visitor to Leicester but mostly as a chamber music recitalist. Here was a chance to enjoy her prodigious talents again but as a concerto soloist in a late work by Rachmaninoff which I had not heard live for many years.

Secondly, there was a performance of a Nielsen symphony in DMH which has been  hardly a frequent event.  ( I can recall only one performance in recent years, that by the Philharmonia and Paavo Jarvi of the first symphony). Following on from that, the third reason consisted of memories from the 1960’s when I and my soon to be wife were knocked sideways by the power of these symphonies, then enjoying an introduction to London  similar but, alas, not so long lasting, as the Mahler revolution. And then many years later  there was the young Rattle in Birmingham doing the complete cycle of the symphonies which re-inforced my feeling that this was one of the great symphonic  cycles of the 20th century, or for that matter any other century . Why, oh why, I wondered , had I missed the early parts of the Bardi Cycle?

Well, the answer to that was quite simple. I questioned whether a mainly amateur orchestra could possibly meet the colossal orchestral challenges of these works, particularly Symphonies 4 and 5. That was compounded by having a few months ago heard The Inextinguishable played by the LSO and Rattle in performance which literally stunned a Barbican audience into silence for a moment or two so overwhelming was it.  Then, I remembered what a friend of acute musical intelligence had said to me about the quality of the Bardi  performances of this music. So, the only answer was to go and hear for myself.  The result of that was that I wished that I had taken notice much earlier to what he said.

Not that in the first piece played the concert seemed about to be particularly revelatory. True, it was a delight to be re-acquainted with Sibelius’ Karelia Suite which was one of the first records that I possessed as a youth and which these days, like a lot of music in Suite form, tends to be a rarity in the face of sterner musical expression. There was much in this performance which did justice to the work. Particularly notable was the rich sound that the strings managed to conjure up in Ballade, totally worthy of any professional ensemble. Similarly the nuanced phrasing and sound of the horns  at the beginning of the Intermezzo  were extremely impressive, particularly when playing from cold as it were and as a whole the performance certainly delivered the essence of the work, without perhaps achieving quite the swagger and bounce some of it ideally requires.

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Then came Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and here the music making moved onto a different level. The pianist and the orchestra delivered a performance that can only be described as scintillating. Indeed, I felt I had not heard a better or more exciting interpretation of the work.  It highlighted how the late works of this composer should sound compared to the more famous works he wrote before he went into exile. Compositions like The Symphonic Dances , after very tepid critical reviews when they first saw the light of day,  are now receiving  the attention they deserve, as music which set off in a different direction to the romantic sound world so associated with the composer. Of course, these Variations always received approval of sorts because of the gorgeous melody in a middle variation and for which there is often the tendency to wait impatiently for its arrival. This ignores elsewhere the wealth of wit , the passages in which brittle colours predominate and for which absolute clarity is required from the performers.  Of course, being Rachmaninoff , often the virtuosity demanded of the pianist is phenomenal. Anyone knowing the pianist on this occasion could guess that those demands would be met in spades and so they were. However, the many delightful moments in the more reflective parts of the work were also fully presented and one finished by wondering whether one had ever heard the clarity of the DMH instrument used to better effect. The performance had a truly pristine quality which revealed a glittering sound world quite unlike for instance what happens when the music is played on the ubiquitous Steinways which so tend to dominate our concert halls. It was overall a wonderfully  invigorating musical experience.

One last thing in regard the above. I was so impressed by the pianist having the score in front of her. It occurred to me to wonder why concert practice in the last century became locked into the virtue of playing entirely from memory and I remembered the story of Sir Adrian Boult, told to me by a friend who as a lad was present  at his rehearsal of a youth orchestra . When the great man was asked why he conducted from a score back came the reply, ‘ Because I can read one!’

And so to the climax of the concert, a performance of Nielsen’s mighty 5th Symphony. The previous evening, not having heard the symphony for some years, I played a disc of it being performed by a Finnish orchestra. I listened to the characteristics of the composer’s late style, huge outbursts of sound with strings playing in several sections at the top of the range and producing what I have come to think as the edginess of the sound produced by electrical discharges and which is so extraordinarily expressive of colossal energy. Then, there are the many passages that demand to be played at colossal speed. In addition, the whole orchestra needs to produce at times another characteristic Nielson sound which forever reminds me somehow of the outdoors and the openness of the Scandinavian sky. Lastly, in this particular symphony, there is the titanic battle between orchestra and side drum which, if not delivered with complete musical conviction, can teeter slightly on the brink of the crudely obvious. Could a largely amateur orchestra of the size of the Bardi, rather fewer in number I would think than that routinely fielded by a London orchestra in this music, really do justice to this work?

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Well, they most certainly did. All the above was in this performance. Of course, there was occasionally the sense of strain. For instance, the LSO delivered the frantic start of the last movement of The Inextinguishable almost as if it was a walk in the park. However, that very sense of strain in its own way rather added to the delivery of the titanic things in the symphony and at the end one could only marvel at the hours of rehearsal which had obviously  gone into the delivery of something with this impact. This is music close to Claus Efland’s heart as was clear from his amusing address before the performance, even though there were moments when I thought him a little too intent on warning the audience of the perils ahead, notably about there being supposedly no tunes! There is no doubt, though, that he is a formidable conductor and interpreter of this music and the Bardi are very lucky to have his power to persuade and inspire musicians to play out of their skins. I look forward to the cycle being brought to a completion in the not too distant future.