The denigration of the past – “Tradition ist Schlamperei” is how Mahler himself viewed such matters – has not stopped composers going back to the tried-and-tested. Time for a quiz question! What kind of dance links Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Grieg’s Holberg Suite? Yes punters, it’s the gavotte! And now for the bonus point: name three other composers who were similarly inspired. There we are simply spoilt for choice. Leaving aside the French school (the likes of Lully, Rameau, Gossec, Massenet), there’s J.S. himself, Gluck and Mozart, and it also finds its way into Gilbert & Sullivan. Realising he was on to a good thing and following the example of other masters of recycling, Prokofiev even reuses it in his Romeo and Juliet ballet.
Fra Holbergs Tid was the only work the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, on the penultimate leg of their current European tour, brought with them from their homeland (more’s the pity, I have to say). Written in 1884 to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the dramatist Ludwig Holberg, dubbed "the Molière of the North", it formed an elaborate encore to a long musical evening. With the 22 string players performing from memory and all but the lower strings standing, this was a heart-warming display of the qualities that the ensemble has built up in forty years under the inspired artistic direction of Terje Tønnesen. One could take the immaculate intonation and the uniform bowing and phrasing for granted, but what particularly stood out was the act of breathing as one voice, the individual players maintaining constant eye contact with their colleagues, their faces wreathed in the smiles of collective music-making. This physicality was again evident in the way bodies moved in time to the music, with a splendid example of the Hardanger fiddle tradition with foot stomping and the double-basses rotating amongst their colleagues right at the end of the Rigaudon.
The evening had started in equally high-spirited fashion with Prokofiev’s homage to his favourite composer Haydn, not in fact his very first symphonic work since two juvenile efforts had already preceded the Classical. Once again playing entirely from memory and with even the wind and brass standing, these players demonstrated why they have no cause to fear any comparison with top-flight chamber orchestras. Incisive strings producing a full body of sound, characterful wind – an especially delightful Chaplinesque bassoon accompaniment at one stage – and brass and timpani as dramatic but never attention-seeking counterpoints, the entire symphony was delivered with a collective and infectious brilliance.
Between these two throwbacks to the past, Leif Ove Andsnes took centre-stage (in the literal sense, since he directed from the keyboard) for the two most substantial piano concertos Mozart ever wrote, both dating from that memorable year 1785, in D minor and E flat major. It is here that I would question this aspect of the programming, because it frequently seemed that the soloist was trying to outdo the dramatic possibilities inherent in both. The disturbing and unsettling sound-world that informs the entire first movement of K466, with those agitated syncopations at the start emerging from the chthonic depths like unchained dragons were fully exploited by Andsnes. Quite remarkably this concerto has attracted the attention of a wide range of other composers who wrote solo cadenzas, and here Andsnes played those by Beethoven (drawing out the full explosive potential) and Hummel (giving full expression to its quixotic elements).
There was much to savour in the clarity and cleanness of the solo playing, but the repeated forcefulness bordered on a one-dimensional view of the work. Mozart frequently offers us the four seasons of the year in a matter of a few pages. What he certainly didn’t intend was a relentless winter wind to be blowing throughout a complete movement. In an acoustic which can charm the ear with mere whispers, the dynamic levels hardly dropped below mf in the outer movements and it was often the left hand which drove on the ferocious dramatic energy. In the second movement, a curiosity marked Romanze, in which the simple theme is stated no fewer than fourteen times, there is a central episode in G minor in which the soloist storms up and down the keyboard. Here it was the wind that continued the assault on the senses, as though all the geysers in the land were erupting.
In K482 primary colours were again in evidence, with vigorously accented playing from both soloist and ensemble, so much so that the larger-than-life sounds emanating from the orchestra in the finale took on a hurdy-gurdy quality. At least the warmth of the textures – the addition of clarinets instead of oboes, for instance – and the muted strings at the start of the slow movement provided a much-needed respite from so much volcanic energy and high-voltage projection.
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