mon 10/08/2020

Meyer, BBCPO, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Meyer, BBCPO, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Meyer, BBCPO, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto and Shostakovich 4 open the season with a bang

Soloist of character: Sabine Meyer

Staying close to his Scandinavian roots, John Storgårds, principal guest conductor of the BBC Phil and chief conductor of the Helsinki Phil, is gearing up for the celebration of Carl Nielsen’s 150th birthday next year. Being the seventh child of 12, Nielsen battled his way from poor beginnings to musical eminence, serving his time on the way as a military bandsman and, for 16 years, as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. He, too, always stayed close to his roots, even writing Danish popular songs to the end.

Storgårds will be conducting all six Nielsen symphonies, written between the ages of 26 and 60, later in the season, but by way of a taster for his first concert of this new season he chose the Clarinet Concerto Op 57, with Sabine Meyer, the German virtuoso as soloist. Some taster!

Storgårds had the orchestra blowing the roof offNielsen wrote it 1928, near the end of his life, one of only two instrumental concertos he managed to finish before his death in 1931. It was composed for Aage Oxenvald apparently to suit his “irascible” character. And it takes a soloist of character as well as great technical skill to play it. Sabine Meyer is one such. She plays with authority and panache, with her body language adding to the story as she bends, sways and almost dances her way through it. Such are the conflicting senses in the piece that at times she seemed to be fighting with her instrument, at others all serene. As Nielsen himself famously said, “The clarinet can be simultaneously warm-hearted and completely hysterical, as mild as balm and screaming like a tramcar on poorly greased rails”.

You never know where you are with this concerto. It’s like being on an emotional rollercoaster.  Perhaps it was Nielsen’s military band experience which alerted him to the effectiveness of the use throughout of the side-drum, rat-at-tatting like a starter’s gun and lending the sense of battle to the soloist’s encounter with the orchestra. Certainly, it provided 25 exhausting and exhilarating minutes with Meyer, at her most magnetic in the two cadenzas, supreme.

Storgårds (pictured right by Chris Christodoulou) opened the concert even closer to home with Rakastava ("The Lover"), written originally as a choral work. The version we know today is that which he reworked in 1911 for string orchestra, triangle and timpani. It is a short, likeable, descriptive piece, following the lover from distant desire to sad farewell. It gave us a chance to hear the lovely weight and tone of the 40-strong string orchestra.

The conductor left his homeland behind for the symphony, Shostakovich’s Fourth, written in 1936 but famously not performed in public for 25 years because of political suppression. It was an absolute tour de force under his alert and dynamic conducting, at climactic times becoming a one-man windmill.

We know it to be a mighty work on a grand scale, calling for vast musical forces and providing a thorough examination of the orchestra’s strength in depth and sustained quality. Brilliantly led by Yuri Torchinsky, the Phil certainly passed the test. The fast and furious demands on the strings in the first of the three movements, impossibly stamina-sapping, must be either a joy or a nightmare for the musicians. Here, they were exhilarating.

The work teems with breathtaking effects, such as the tick-tock ending from clicking percussion at the end of the second movement and the pulsating bass rhythms leading to the “Pathétique” ending. Then there is the Mahleresque funeral march, surprisingly leading to a massive climax in the final movement, when Storgårds had the orchestra blowing the roof off, yet always ready to change gear again when all is quiet. Shostakovich’s bottom drawer must have been full to overflowing during those dark days of Stalin. The Fourth Symphony was surely top of the pile.

The clarinet can be simultaneously warm-hearted and completely hysterical, as mild as balm and screaming like a tramcar


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Shouldn't that be 'his irascible character'?

Indeed it should, Mike (Aage not Aase). Duly corrected.

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