“Be yourself. The world worships the original.” So said the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, a comment which, judging from last night’s performance, nicely sums up the Swedish Chamber Orchestra's interpretative approach to the music it tackles. Within a week of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’ concert, the next set of Nordic visitors to the National Concert Hall were the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard and Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland. They offered attractive if conventional fare in the shape of Mozart's Piano concerto no. 26 in D major and Brahms' Second Symphony, with a short, quirky piece at the start.

Swedish Chamber Orchestra © Ulla-Carin Ekblom
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
© Ulla-Carin Ekblom

Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer’s work A Freak in Burbank is a musical portrayal of American film director Tim Burton who lives in Burbank in Los Angeles. It was a lively piece with ostinatos driving the music forward in the early stages, and later on with mosquito-like trills from the violins and loud chordal interjections from the rest of the orchestra. The pianissimo sustained high notes on the strings towards the end were weirdly intense but this was quickly replaced by an energetic climax finishing with a cheeky crash on the bass drum. The programmatic element of the music was given added emphasis by the theatrical gestures of the conductor as he sought to give visual piquancy to the lively rhythms.

I remember being much impressed by Christian Ihle Hadland's novel approach to Grieg’s concerto on his last visit here and while this time round, it was not a revelatory reading of Mozart’s “Coronation” concerto, it was, nonetheless, a most satisfying account. The many scale passages of the first movement were elegantly shaped, glistening with the delicacy of his touch. The SCO, given its relatively nimble size, listened intently to the soloist, engaging in exciting dialogue with him at the contrapuntal moments. I felt that Dausgaard overdramatized the approach to the cadenza, cleaving the air with his gestures before spinning around to face Hadland. There was nothing hammy though in the way the soloist delivered his fiery solo, flying over the keyboard with alacrity. The repetitive nature of the second movement Larghetto was avoided thanks to exquisite shaping that Hadland imparted to each phrase. The third movement was taken at breakneck speed and while the pianistic filigree glittered, there were the odd co-ordination moments with the orchestra.

The highlight came after the break with a highly distinctive interpretation of Brahms’ Second Symphony, also in D major. Unlike the brooding First Symphony, this one is much jollier in character, or in the words of Brahms, “as though it was written for a newly-married couple”. With Dausgaard and SCO it sounded like a newly-married couple with a penchant for life in the fast lane. I normally like Brahms played with a certain amount of gravitas. Dispensing with this, Dausgaard attacked the score with gusto and a vivid freshness that was utterly exhilarating and ultimately convincing. Given the smaller numbers of the chamber orchestra, the strings were not as fulsome I would have liked. Nevertheless, the energy and total commitment of every one of them was most commendable. There was a vernal freshness and innocence to the opening Allegro non troppo aided by the brisk tempo and the taut, energetic sound which Dausgaard drew from the SCO. Dausgaard proved himself adept at ratcheting up the tension when needed to, though, frustratingly, he missed several moments of rubato where the music melts back to the tonic key.

The intense yearning of the second movement suited his vision for the work as the SCO responded with highly expressive crescendos and decrescendos and muscular chordal interjections. Credit goes to both oboists Guido Gualandi and Lisa Almberg for their gracious serenade in the third movement Allegretto grazioso. The contrasting Presto section was splendidly spirited, the dialogue between the woodwinds and strings chattering busily away. The sensation was similar to that of being driven along at a higher speed than normal with familiar sites whizzing by: at times, slightly too quickly, though it created quite the frisson.

The finale wasn’t lacking in sparks either. Starting quietly at first, the SCO was soon playing as one, giving it their all, rejoicing in the thrusting sforzandi. Just when you thought it could not become more buoyant, Dausgaard egged the orchestra on to its exhilarating climax while the muscular chords and fanfare of the coda brought the work to its joyous conclusion. It was indeed a highly novel approach to Brahms which ultimately paid off.

****1