Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Nielsen, Berg, Tchaikovsky

11.25.17
Alexander Prior
Edmonton Classical Music

Nielsen’s picturesque and evocative rhapsody overture En fantasirejse til Faeroene might be better known to English-speaking audiences if only there could be a general agreement on how to translate it into English – it’s variously A Fantastic journey to the Faroe Islands, or An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands, or An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands, or… well, you get the idea.
The Faroe Islands (or Faeroe Islands) are a stunningly beautiful archipelago of rugged, Nordic islands about 320 kms dead north of Scotland, and have been under Danish (or Norwegian-Danish) control since the 14th century (for some stunning photographs of the Islands by the Danish photographer Mads Peter Iversen, click here).  Nielsen was commissioned to write the overture for the occasion of a visit by a Faroese delegation to Denmark, held in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He intended it as an overtly programmatic work, and at the first performance there was a list of the events depicted in the piece: the calm sea on the start of the voyage, seeing the land on arrival, the dancing and singing to welcome the visitors, the farewell as they leave, and the calm at sea again.
There are strong touches here of the other great Nordic tone poet, Sibelius, and perhaps even a nod right back to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is in essentially two moods or parts – the very evocative foggy start of the ocean journey, and the lively, folk dance mood of the celebrations (with a rambunctiousness that reminds one of Charles Ives in a similar mood). Nielsen weaves genuine Faroe folk-tunes into the work, including a gloriously noble long-breathed Sibelian theme, and, with its elliptical arch shape, the work is a most satisfying and evocative northern seascape painting.
That conductor Alexander Prior should chose to open the concert with this lesser-known work is a reflection of a personal touch that is already evident, only two months after the beginning of his inaugural season as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. Nielsen is one of his favourite composers, and if his music is not (yet) that well known to Edmonton audiences, it does seem so suitable for our northern winter city, with its rugged lyricism, its incisiveness, its combination of the emotional and the pragmatic. Two things are also emerging from Prior’s ascendance to the Winspear podium: his emphasis on colour and tone, be the the colour of an individual instrument, an orchestral section, or the whole orchestra, and his willingness to stamp a strong personal interpretation on a work.
The former came out in the lower string playing that opens the work, a kind of murmur of fog seeping up over the sea on the start of the voyage – emotive, quiet playing from an orchestra who have not in the past been noted for really quiet playing – and in his willingness to let individual instruments  go for a less obvious tone colour: the more raucous (and very effective) cry of a seagull on the clarinet, for example, in place of the more mellow romantic bird call usually heard. He is also (related to that idea of individual colour) requiring a precision, a crispness of playing that hasn’t always been as evident in the ESO’s sound in the past. That is making new demands on the orchestra, to which it is clearly responding (even if the playing was a little ragged after the first woodwind entry), and doubtless will continue to do so. Here Nielsen’s work emerged as  both rugged and alluring, and the performance must have won many in the audience over to its beauties.
The Berg Violin Concerto also makes considerable demands on both soloist and orchestra, and if again the orchestra had moments when they weren’t entirely comfortable in Berg’s idiom, first it hasn’t had many opportunities to play in that idiom, and second this is exactly the kind of music into which an orchestra grows as it becomes more familiar with playing it. Nor did such moments impeded a moving performance, for the solo playing of Robert Uchida (the concertmaster of the ESO) was gorgeous, at times beautifully understated, an equal among equals in the orchestra, at times gently whimsical, floating through the often chamber-like combination of instruments in Berg’s scoring, and throughout with pure and lovely tone, especially in the higher ranges of the solo writing. The end, that dying away sigh, was beautifully played by both soloist and orchestra. Read the rest of the review here