The season opener for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra took place on Wednesday night in front of a public of 50 (including HRH Crown Princess Victoria who read an introductory note) but a much bigger audience watching the real-time stream. Andrew Manze was the guest conductor, leading the ensemble in a typically shaped but shortened programme consisting of a brief introductory work, something for soloist and orchestra and a pièce de résistance. The structure of the performance might have been traditional, but the selected works were not.

Andrew Manze conducts the RSPO
© Nadja Sjöström

The evening started with Roller Coaster: Super 8, a 9 minutes-long score from 2013 by Katarina Leyman. Commissioned to write “a free commentary to Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony”, the Swedish composer “played around with the figure 8”, turned it sideways, getting a graphical representation of both the mathematical symbol for infinity and the roller coaster of her youth. Beginning with pulsating triplets played by strings and woodwinds and ending in a kind of sidereal silence, the composition is supposed to suggest exhilaration and uneasiness in-between. Using a modern compositional apparatus, Leyman created an opus characterised by nothing exceptional neither in terms of motifs nor the handling of harmonies, but with a certain cinematographic whiff.

Les Illuminations represents Benjamin Britten's youthfully confident attempt to find musical equivalences to Arthur Rimbaud’s sensuous and equivocal utterances that abound in his prose poems. No wonder the sentence "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage" (I alone hold the key to this savage parade) is thrice repeated. Originally written for soprano, Les Illuminations has been taken into possession for a long time (from the days of Peter Pears) by tenor voices. It was wonderful to hear soprano Hanna Husáhr tackling the technically and expressively difficult role. Her mellifluous voice blended well with the string ensemble and her dialogues with concertmaster Joakim Svenheden or principal viola Vicki Powell were full of tenderness. Husáhr brought forward the oriental sonorities in Marine and the lyricism in Antique. She also displayed a remarkable legato in the final Départ. Unfortunately, in an opus where the valorization of the text is of such importance, Husáhr’s French diction was rather murky. Manze and the orchestra evoked with accuracy the shifting moods, the colorful palette and the underlying tensions that mark the score.

Hanna Husáhr sings Les Illuminations
© Nadja Sjöström

The final piece of the evening was Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. Manze treated every detail with utmost care. Transitions between segments were smooth (an assertion that was not necessarily true relative to the camerawork). The solos – from piccolo to bassoon to horn to cello – were always elegantly shaped. Nevertheless, the rendition lacked sufficient contrasts; it seemed – I am exaggerating – one big Berceuse. The mystery prevalent in the Introduction was hardly perceivable and, most of all, the pagan dance-like vitality and the incomparable roughness that are still so shocking in the best interpretations of the Danse infernale were mostly missing.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

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