Under the baton of Christian Kluxen, their young Danish Assistant Conductor, there was a distinctly Scandinavian flavour to the RSNO’s concert on Friday evening. While not sold out, the Usher Hall was reassuringly full, the audience no doubt drawn by the familiar names on the programme as well as undeterred by the novelties.

John Lill © Sophie Baker
John Lill
© Sophie Baker

It was indeed with one of the novelties that the programme began, En vintersaga by Lars-Erik Larsson. Despite its four-movement structure, this is by no means a symphony, but a suite compiled in 1937 from the incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Although the composer died as recently as 1986, we are firmly in the realms of conventional tonality and melody. If you think “Dag Wiren (almost his exact contemporary) meets Swan of Tuonela”, you have the picture. The opening movement was a lilting Siciliana in which a pastoral air was generated by the sweet interplay between oboe and flute. A bustling Intermezzo followed, marred only by some ragged pizzicato among the reduced strings. A delicately-textured Pastoral recaptured the mood of the opening and the Epilogue tapered into a wistful sequence of minor chords in the strings and horns, meant to suggest forgiveness and reconciliation.

John Lill is one of the Grand Old Men among British pianists and needs little introduction. His reading of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor was refreshingly reflective rather than blatantly virtuosic. As a result, the audience could appreciate the soloist’s attention to detail in phrasing and tone. The orchestra, now at full strength, played with equally crisp precision in the tutti sections, building up to suitable fireworks from the piano in the first-movement cadenza. The musical highlight of the entire evening was reached in the Adagio. The unhurried approach paid dividends in the exquisite beauty of the orchestral opening. Clearly by muting the strings, Greig had wanted not less sound, but a different texture. Lill matched this with limpid playing, infusing the movement with a sense of whimsical improvisation, as if creating each bar of the music anew. The effect was magical, confirming Lill’s status as one of the great pianists. The finale was both lively and rhythmic. In no time, we felt we were barrelling off to Trondheim and it was clear from the orchestra’s subsequent response that they, along with the audience, had enjoyed the journey.

A generation ago, it might have been fashionable to deprecate the early symphonies of Dvořák in comparison with his later, greater works. So it was with Tchaikovsky, too. Whatever angst surrounded the production of the Symphony no. 1 in G minor (and by all accounts, there was plenty), there is more than just developmental interest in the work. Orchestral colour is used in great blocks. For example, initially the violas present a melody in unison, then the winds and then the brass, and so on. There are nevertheless several melodies that at are not quite resolved and frequently we hear orchestral crescendos which fail to terminate in satisfying climaxes. The name Winter Dreams that has subsequently become attached to the piece is a clue to its almost programmatic qualities. The first two movements are entitled not merely “Allegro” or “Adagio”, but “Dreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Desolation and Land of Mists”.

Was this the actual impact of the work? Certainly, wind solos floated over ethereal pianissimo string sounds in the first movement, but was this the frozen north? The horns could have come from any of the later ballets, and were more suggestive of dancing flowers than icicles. There were fanfares aplenty, but their promise was never fulfilled. In the Scherzo, the strings toyed with the winds and vice versa, all with well-crafted ensemble playing. The trio interlude also contained some lyrical playing from the orchestra as a whole. The Finale – written in four distinct parts – calls for extraordinary control of dynamics, from ppp to fff. This was beautifully managed, and while there was a distinct sense of scurry from one section to another until the final blast, the piece as a whole failed to thrill. As a taste of what was to come, the symphony is tantalising, but not the equal of the Fourth or the Pathétique.

The concert had been enjoyable and musical. One expects no less from a good professional orchestra. Had the hairs on the back of my neck been raised? Once or twice. It must seem like damning with faint praise, but the event was workmanlike, rather than memorable. An evening of good plain cookery rather than gourmet delights.

***11