Tired of city life, the polluted atmosphere and the constant rumble of traffic and machinery? Composers have evoked all of that, and very effectively too. But why not turn once in a while to the pristine landscapes and pure air conjured up in the sound-world of Sibelius, the rustic rhythms of a simpler life that came like second nature to Dvořák and the folksiness of bygone ages that Bartók tapped into. Escaping to the country has never been easier.

Karina Canellakis © Mathias Bothor
Karina Canellakis
© Mathias Bothor

Karina Canellakis, making an auspicious debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, chose to start with an expedition to the ancient bardic Northland, a dark and terrible place as presented in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. In 1905, when he started work on Pohjola’s Daughter, Sibelius had just heard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben in Berlin and even considered calling his own work “L’aventure d’un héros”. This partly explains the orchestral opulence, with skeins of compressed energy taking the strings to the extreme ends of their registers, a constant heaving and throbbing, a sense of wild and incalculable things stirring in the broad expanses of a chilly northern landscape. Canellakis, who is rapidly establishing herself as an artist of distinction (she becomes Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic next season), paid careful attention to the dynamic ebb and flow, shaping the atmospheric lines with wide arcs of her expressive left hand. Nor did this piece, described by Harold Truscott as a “genuine one-movement symphony”, appear as a mere succession of episodes: there was a cumulative sense of growth before the central climax was unleashed with groaning double basses, maniacal shrieking in the collective winds and a rock-steady fanfare from the brass. This was an impressive calling-card with evidence of clear authority over the orchestra.

It’s easy to be dismissive of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor (the second of four concertos following an early A major attempt for the cello never properly scored). A generation or so ago P.E. lessons would often include “running on the spot”. Listening to Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance, I could see that the fingers were covering a lot of ground on the keyboard, often with identical passages for both hands, but there never seemed to be any clear destination signposted in advance. Though this work is no display vehicle for the soloist, there are a number of grand gestures and attempts to enter into the heroic mode (the cadenza towards the end of the first movement is a case in point) as well as flourishes which could easily have come from the pen of Saint-Saëns, but over wide stretches this particular landscape seems to be glimpsed from an open window rather than en plein air. The elements of lyrical inventiveness – such a feature of this composer – never quite take wing. Listen, for instance, to the dreamlike episode for strings near the beginning of the slow movement, sensitively shaped here by Canellakis, and you want to call out, “Yes, yes, please carry on like that…” but the moment is soon gone and the chance of a development is never seized. Aimard extracted as much vitality from the score as he could, and both he and his conductor were alive to the agitato and con fuoco markings in the first and third movements respectively, producing bursts of fizzing energy, but even with such a sharp profile I’m not persuaded that concert programmes should include more frequent outings to this particular territory.

There was much to admire in the way Canellakis handled Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in the second half. The windows were gently teased open at the start, admitting a fleeting current of air sufficient to twitch the curtains before the patio doors were flung wide open in the first full orchestral outburst to reveal the expanse of the Puszta, the great Hungarian plains. All the individual sections were well balanced and instrumental solos supplied colour and interest, with elegant and expansive playing and no unnecessary point-making. There is no doubt that Canellakis can energise and animate her players, but I’m not sure she yet has the full measure of this landmark score. The playful quality of the Game of Pairs second movement, where mischief and a hint of malevolence are on display, was not fully realised. In the central Elegia, intended as a tribute to Madame Koussevitzky, the LPO violas, seated far right, produced a good body of dark sound, and the will-o’-the-wisp terrain was delicately negotiated. Yet the fourth movement was almost too suave and civilised. Bartók once vouchsafed to Antal Doráti that the caricature used here as an interrupting device was how he gave vent to his anger at the comparative and undeserved success (from his point of view) of Shostakovich and the neglect of his own scores. No matter: landscape left insufficiently explored can always be revisited at a later stage.

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