‘Intimate symphonic playing’: an oxymoron perhaps, but in the fantastic acoustic of Symphony Hall and with the polished playing of the CBSO, somehow these symphonies, even with the tooting trumpets, blaring bassoons and sonorous strings (not to mention the tonking timpani), had the feel of chamber music. Much credit for this intimate effect must go to Robert Spano who guided the orchestra, in the most part, with a light touch – flailing only where flailing alone would do. The orchestra sounded well rehearsed, confident and polished, and considering the incredibly short lead times on performance (particularly in Britain) this is not something to take for granted.

Robert Spano, © Andrew Eccles
Robert Spano,
© Andrew Eccles

This concert was set up as a comparison/battle of symphonies. Sibelius' Fourth and Nielsen's Third respectively premièred and completed in 1911, one in Finland, the other in Denmark. This was a charming idea and to hear two great symphonies feels like good value for money, especially when played as well as this. The two pieces, written a full century ago, were revolutionary in very contrasting ways. Whilst Nielsen’s sounds more progressive, at least harmonically, Sibelius’s symphonic language is so intriguing and distinctive, his mastery and development of the symphonic form always apparent; the fairly short Fourth has its part in the progression through the Fifth towards the astonishing Seventh, which lasts just twenty minutes over four conjoined movements.

So it was Sibelius to make the first move: it got going with a dark cello solo, supported by an oscillating figure in another cello part. Eventually the sound spread deliciously through the rest of the string section and the CBSO’s woodwind section introduced themselves, creating an impressive sound and blending wonderfully (I’m not sure who gets credit: Sibelius or the players). Such a striking opening might feel gimmicky in the wrong hands but the pathos projected from the front-desk cellist, practically cuddling the instrument, was serious and intense. Sibelius wrote this symphony whilst recovering from a gamut of personal problems: crippling financial pressures, alcoholism (and an enormous fondness for cigars) which only stopped when he was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately he survived. Thus, it is impossible to ignore the autobiographical element to the brooding and darkness that shrouds the piece.

The second movement is strange. Littered with short woodwind solos, it begins to feel ‘bitty’ and uncomfortable in places, and then ends – about as abrupt an ending to any movement I’ve heard. The third movement places the listener on more solid ground and the cello briefly returns with the haunting opening solo. Though one feels – and this is testament to his mastery – as though Sibelius is misdirecting the listener, only revealing glimpses and angles, the climax never quite comes. Then in the fourth movement, Spano began to wind the orchestra up: he built the orchestra, to an incredible climax drowning out a weak siren-like gesture and moving straight into a folk dance – a bizarre and wholly enjoyable pay-off for a long period of torment. The strings then silkily lead the way into a bleak coda – an ambiguous and profound end.

Following the interval, some Orchestral Songs by Greig appeared. They were performed perfectly well. Soprano Inger Dam-Jensen, dressed sumptuously in gold, perhaps resembling a half-opened Quality Street, allowed us a glimpse of her sweet voice, powerful and well controlled so that the orchestra balanced perfectly. The songs were well chosen, operating as they did almost like a cycle in content and style. However, the concept of the concert was at stake here – the 1911 link that worked so well was ignored. I suppose this lyrical, tuneful and definitively ‘easy’ music worked as a sorbet, refreshing the ears ready for the meatier Nielsen.

In the battle of attention-grabbing symphonic openings, the repeated forte statements of Nielsen’s Third probably pips Sibelius. If Nielsen’s First Symphony is influenced by Greig, his Third shows – at least harmonically – how far he has pushed onwards. This symphony is rife with multiple tonalities, making navigating it at times fairly tricky. The unusual (some would say ‘striking’, others ‘odd’) inclusion of a song without words for soprano and baritone was to me beautiful – the voices singing ‘la’ and against orchestral textures took on a not-unattractive fragile quality and were sung consummately by Jeremy Huw-Williams and the returning Dam-Jensen. Building up to the end of the work, the orchestra could let rip with really crunching harmonies and ffffff timpani – played like a child banging the high chair, reminiscent of the famous Morecambe and Wise take on the less delicate side of the art!

Overall, the effect of this symphony was profound; the final movement confirmed the joyous outpouring the title Espansiva suggests. The CBSO really did it proud and filled the acoustic with a wonderful, brilliant sound. It’s hard to draw a winner between the two symphonies – in fact, the balanced programme of Sibelius’s depth of despair and Nielsen’s enthusiastic outpouring really complemented each other. This was all performed consummately and making full use of the fabulous Symphony Hall. Regretfully leaving my oh-so-comfy-seat (such a rare treat in concert halls) for the onward journey, I reflected on a really satisfying and very enjoyable concert.

***11