The young Christian Ihle Hadland should have performed on this stage at Leeds Town Hall before, as a finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition. Why not? Similar fond musings must have wafted into the minds of other audience members as they watched and listened to him playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor with one of the world’s oldest-established orchestras (250 years) as the centrepiece of this concert: his slightly tousled appearance belies his excellent control, delicacy and poetic sensibility. This became especially apparent in the first movement’s cadenza, storm changing beautifully to calm. Strangely, the second movement (Largo) seemed a little too desultory before the enthusiasm and the drama was brought back in a really exciting third movement (Rondo). Ihle Hadland is the recipient of a number of prestigious prizes and is feted in Norway, as he should be here. More appearances on this side of the North Sea are very much in order.
Sergei Prokofiev’s sculptor son Oleg lived for two years in Leeds in the 70s, a fellow in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Leeds. He was a dedicated promoter of his father’s music, which inspired him deeply: I imagine him wielding his mallet and chisel as a track from Romeo and Juliet plays in his studio, perhaps from a long-playing record, percussion at the heart of the creative act. The Bergen Philharmonic mustered all of its forces, especially the percussive, admirably well for the sequence which was selected for us by its Music Director and conductor Andrew Litton from this great but very lengthy ballet score, which was at first thought to be “impossible to dance to” by the ballerinas at the Kirov. He drew upon numbers from each of the three suites of excerpts prepared by the composer himself, and they were enough to conjure up more than adequately Shakespeare’s major themes of love, violence, death and destiny.
It was bracing to hear “Montagues and Capulets” (Suite 3, no. 2) in full, rather than the brief snatch used to introduce The Apprentice on television, complete with the wonderful scary beginning – a spectacular celebration of dissonances. The piece which followed – “Juliet the Young Girl” (Suite 2, no. 2) gave the orchestra the opportunity to be light and sparkling in its portrayal of youthful mischievousness. Different orchestral textures were managed with accomplished skill, through a captivating Minuet (Suite 1, no. 4) to “Romeo at Juliet’s Before Parting” (Suite 2, no. 5) with its sweet and anxious music, and its countdown to the inevitable tragedy. This was the perfect prelude to “The Death of Tybalt” (Suite 1, no. 7), the depiction of Mercutio’s killing by Tybalt, then Tybalt’s killing by Romeo, then Tybalt’s funeral, all in a few minutes. The excellent strings made the frenetic tempo (how many notes per second was that?) seem an effortless task – and a powerful brass section came into its own for a magnificent finale.
A major touring orchestra from Norway is obliged to offer us a little something from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, I suppose, and it is a tribute to the orchestra that they showed not a smidgeon of weariness: the four pieces we heard were served perfectly fresh, although “Morning” was too brisk for my liking. I prefer to relish the dawn more slowly. “The Death of Åse” was poignantly moving, and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” the same good old romp as ever. Grieg’s music is so superior to the play by Henrik Ibsen for which he wrote the stage music, a rambling tale of a pretty nasty character who wonders whether he is a man or a troll, often performed in Scandinavia but seldom here.
The extended applause and stamping proved that the Leeds audience loved the visitors from Bergen with their popular programme, which was part of the Leeds International Concert Season.