The performing arts is facing a huge crisis with cancelled events, some now stretching ahead into 2021 as the difficulties of performing live in front of a full audience become clearer. Those organisations that can have been moving online, so one of the benefits for a marooned audience is that streamed performances are coming from across the world into our living rooms at a high picture definition and pretty good sound quality. It is not the same as being there, but the variety of what is available is astonishing.

James Gaffigan
© Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

For the last of Bergen Philharmonic's present series, Close up – at a distance, recorded in the city’s Grieghallen with no audience present, James Gaffigan conducted a sprightly and upbeat programme of Rameau, Ravel and Mozart. The players were spread over a large area, over 50 of them for the Ravel with a bit of extra distance for the woodwind and the limited brass present. We are in an orchestral world of no shared music stands and no desk partners, which must feel odd for the string players. 

Les Indes galantes, Rameau’s suite from his opera set in exotic places was a lively opener, a double manual bright harpsichord, rhythmic strings and distinctive woodwind all carefully balanced by a batonless Gafffigan. The short stately Air de Sauvages set the pace followed by a bold overture with pointed detail from the three oboes, the players clearly relishing the cheerful music. Minuets and Tambourins danced, sprightly percussion powered things along, and I was intrigued by the sleigh bells on what looked like a bishop’s crozier in Air pour les Esclaves africains. A huge thunderstorm had the strings scurrying for cover as the drums rolled from both sides of the stage, before the Air de Sauvages returned with lively and joyous embellishment.

Christian Ihle Hadland
© Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Keeping the buoyant mood, more players were present for a completely different piece, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Christian Ihle Hadland. A clapper and piccolo gave a whipcrack opening with punchy trumpet and snare drum before settling into dreamier phrasing, Hadland oozing soft jazzy harmonies with a delicate touch. Gaffigan, baton back in hand, brought balance, allowing individuals to shine through the texture, an extended cor anglais solo in the second movement a moving highlight with the piano rippling softly underneath. Ravel selected all the sharp tools in the box for the final presto, a riotous whirlwind with brass interjections, chattering woodwinds and percussion while Hadland, hands crossing and recrossing sparkled brightly, full of lively bounce.  

Players thinned out for Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony in a measured but nuanced performance, Gaffigan taking a steady pace bringing out delicate phrasing and accents in the mellow strings with crisp development following and delightful duet for the two oboes. A deliciously warm Andante was light as a summer breeze, slow and lyrical, a truly ensemble approach richly underpinned from cellos and basses. Natural trumpets and hardstick timpani brought a period edge to the Menuetto, Gaffigan smiling broadly and swinging both arms, making it dance. The finale was rousing, full of energy with dynamic contrasts, Gaffigan not afraid to hold the players back before unleashing them into a brightly dancing finish, a joyful upbeat end to the lockdown concerts.

The technical presentation astonished, with the cameras achieving a huge range of shots of individual players, one looking right over a cellist’s shoulder across the laps of the violas framing the oboe soloist. It looked impossibly intrusive for the players, but we never saw another camera in shot, and the pictures followed the music closely. The sound quality was superb with great spatial definition, with an edgy brightness in the Rameau and the Ravel. I felt the controls were balanced differently for the Mozart, or perhaps there were just fewer microphones, but it felt changed somehow, putting emphasis on a warm sound.

This was a very enjoyable concert, and a delight to visit Norway from my Scottish living room.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.