A conventional programme – overture, concert, symphony – proved once again that the art of restraint and the ability to balance opposite tendencies are true keys to successful interpretations. It’s easy to go for a loud and rousing version of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, but that’s not what the very talented Edward Gardner had in mind in this Edinburgh International Festival concert with his Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. He emphasized instead the tensions between brass and strings that permeate this music, from the initial expanding and fading, long-held trumpet note to the marching finale. He accentuated the timbral variations, the narcotic intensity shared with later Wagnerian opuses, keeping a balance between the brazenness of certain moments and the intimate character of others. Gardner tried to convey, despite the prescribed speed in its overture rendition, the eloquence and majesty of the main theme melody, drawn from Rienzi’s fifth act prayer.

Members of the Bergen Philharmonic
© Oddleiv Apneseth

The music of Edvard Grieg, Bergen’s most famous son, obviously has a special place in the orchestra’s repertoire. In fact, the composer was one of its artistic directors between 1880 and 1882. Instead of trying to shed light on some lesser known Grieg works, two warhorses were selected: In the Hall of the Mountain King, that they played with dazzling speed as an encore, and the similarly famous Piano Concerto in A minor. The invited soloist was Paul Lewis, always a felicitous choice. One of the greatest interpreters of Beethoven and Schubert among pianists active today, Lewis approached Grieg’s unabashed Romanticism with his characteristic probing modesty, looking for variations in nuance, color and weight rather than grand statements. Running octaves where exquisitely played but that’s not where the interpreter’s focus was. He succeeded in maintaining a close to ideal balance between clarity and volatility, power and intimacy. Initially, there were some differences between pianist and conductor in terms of tempo but an accord was reached relatively quickly. The presumed reminiscences of a Scandinavian midsummer night in the Adagio were rendered with remarkable delicacy by both pianist and orchestra. Lewis left the impression that he was looking for an interpretative solution instead of bringing forward something already written in stone.

The members of the Bergen Philharmonic, one of the oldest European orchestras, celebrating its 250th birthday in 2015, proved what they are capable of achieving in Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat minor. The earthy quality of the string playing, the way the musicians approached a complex score from a chamber musicians’ point of view, the overall perceived spontaneity of their interpretation were truly remarkable.

Conducting from memory and intensely living every second on the podium, Gardner didn’t shy away from showcasing the many influences spread through the score, but he made sure to preserve the indelible wholeness of the work. He firmly anchored Elgar’s opus not only in the post-Wagnerian Romanticism but also anxious world of pre-Great War Europe. What Elgar referred to as “a great charity and a massive hope in the future” was discernible but tempered by doubts. Gardner underlined the wealth of telling details in Elgar’s wonderful scoring, carefully balancing leading and secondary voices in the dense musical tapestry. The almost Mahlerian shifts in mood, the alternations between hope and resignation, between adrenaline-pumping sequences and nostalgic ones were wonderfully rendered. There were several outstanding moments: the gradual winding-down into the slow movement; the restless vagaries in the first movement; the delicacy of the Trio counterbalancing the confidence displayed in the Scherzo; the different shades in which the “ideal call” from the beginning is rendered throughout the symphony.

It’s a pity that such marvelously intense music is heard so rarely outside the British Isles.