Success, success, and another success. That is the short version of the history of the pieces on the programme as the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, led by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, opened this season.

The Gothenburg Symphony, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Leif Ove Andsnes
© Francis Löfvenholm

American composer Jennifer Higdon’s career can certainly be called a success, as her music is frequently played in her home country as well as abroad. GSO opened the season with her piece Loco, a rhythmical and fun performance which triggered my imagination. The title means “crazy”, but as the piece was written for the anniversary of the train to Ravinia, it could also be thought to derive from the word locomotive. And certainly, the music chuffed and puffed steadily and pacey, much like a jolly train.

The success status of the next piece on the programme is undisputed: beloved right from the start, and with no sign of decline, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor lives up to the epithet. Tonight’s soloist was Grieg’s compatriot Leif Ove Andsnes, who, by the sound of his playing, seemed to share this sentiment.

The most striking aspect of Andsnes’ playing was a balanced, crystal clear quality which enabled him to play very softly together with the orchestra without any risk of being drowned. Not having to worry about being overpowered, Andsnes was able to create a warm and delicate sound from the piano which the orchestra responded to in an elegant way. This applied especially to the second movement, which is lyrical, almost like a lullaby, and felt like being wrapped by a cosy blanket on a rainy autumn day.

Andsnes managed to always prove his brilliance when changing the character of the music, from playing in a Romantic style with generous rubato, to folksy, dance-like passages which called for more precise, rhythmical playing – found especially in the third movement. During such transitions between characters and in conclusions of musical parts, it was made apparent what an exceptional pair Rouvali and Andsnes make: they communicated through the music and through looks in a way that made it seem like they were old pals, which made the music flow and the orchestra attentively answer and support the piano.

After the concerto, Andsnes gave the audience a lovely gift in the form of Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major, Op.28 no. 2, which was very fitting after Grieg, and performed with great tenderness.

Closing the evening’s programme was a well-needed, but perhaps forced success at the time of its premiere: Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5. The discussion on the composer’s conditions as an artist in the Soviet Union cast a dark shadow on the work but regardless, the fifth is still one of his most frequently played symphonies.

Rouvali’s take on the work emphasised the sorrow of it, with slow tempos and sensitive pianissimos which crated an intense atmosphere. In the third movement there were times where the music was introvert and mournful in such exquisite pianissimos that the concert hall, and possibly also time, was made motionless.

The Gothenburg Symphony, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Leif Ove Andsnes
© Francis Löfvenholm

The second movement provided a contrast to the sorrow, although by never being exactly happy but more mocking, bordering on grotesque. It is a waltz, but it sounded deceptive, like dancing with a partner who might have a knife hidden somewhere and can’t be trusted. In this movement there were some great solos in the orchestra, one of them played by the concertmaster, with a very engaged Rouvali, and a bright flute solo, which came the closest throughout the whole symphony to fool me into believing something happy was being represented.

However, I was never completely convinced of that, not even in the final part of the fourth movement that closes the symphony. It is seemingly triumphant but the repeated high note in the violins was played in a way – relentlessly and echoing the war-like, threatening feeling found in the opening of the movement – that made me feel that it was not rejoicing or triumphant, but only a lie.

Whether or not this might have been the composer’s meaning I will not venture to guess, however Rouvali’s take on the symphony suggested a personal and deliberate interpretation, and that all of the evening’s performances indeed added to the set of successes.

This review is part of our student reviewers programme in collaboration with the Academy of Music & Drama of the University of Gothenburg.

Reviewed at Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg on 5 September 2019


Higdon, Loco

Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16

Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Op.47

Schumann, Romance in F sharp major, Op.28 no.2 (Encore)


Gothenburg Symphony

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Conductor

Leif Ove Andsnes, Piano