Enigmatic, ineluctable, inextinguishable: three adjectives which encapsulate the three works on offer in last night’s concert. Last night’s concert showcased a recherché programme of purely orchestral works: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes and Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4. Such a demanding programme was not without its pitfalls and after a somewhat unconvincing start the concert improved as it went along, finishing with a riveting Nielsen.

Eivind Gullberg Jensen © Paul Bernhard
Eivind Gullberg Jensen
© Paul Bernhard
It is not just the unfinished nature of Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 which makes it such an enigmatic piece: the principal themes of the first movement are shyly, almost hesitantly stated unlike the boisterous, self-confident declaration that was the norm in the classical symphonies. Jensen caught this atmospheric opening as the lonely melody on the oboe and clarinet unfolded above the ghostly muttering of the strings. The balance in the second subject was slightly off kilter with the syncopated woodwinds too intrusive for the shy cello melody. On subsequent iterations though, what impressed most was the subtlety with which Jensen coaxed this divine melody out of the violins and cellos. The development section featured some muscular dialogue between cellos and violins though the climax here was controlled to the point of being tame. It needed an injection of elemental passion to make the outbursts more convincing. The second movement, like the first, has three beats to the bar and Jensen took a similar tempo here. The opening had a vernal freshness to it, something that was echoed in the touching simplicity of the solos from NSO clarinettist John Finucane and oboist Matthew Manning. The surprising A minor outburst was loud rather than harrowing while the contrapuntal scales on the strings lacked the sense of urgency needed in order to make the climax rewarding.

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, originally conceived as entr’actes to his opera Peter Grimes, have long since become staples of the concert orchestral repertoire. The opera itself is a gritty, brooding story of a fisherman hounded to suicide by the local village community and these interludes reflect this baleful melancholy. Here Jensen had the inexorable tragedy ever in mind, even in the seemingly more jovial “Sunday morning” where the fresh charm of the strings was offset by the sinister counterpoint of the bells and drums. The tonal gradations were most impressive in the luminous “Moonlight” while the cold light of “Dawn” was captured well by the brass and drums. Here the micro-pitch variation of the high notes in the violins at the start increased the desolate atmosphere. It was in the final “Storm” that the forces of nature were unleashed, Jensen whipping the orchestra to a frenzy. The strings’ crescendo surged ominously while the brass bellowed. If there were a shortcoming it was that the thunderous timpani drowned all before them. Nonetheless it was an elemental rendition.

Visibly energised by the interval, Eivind Gullberg Jensen and the NSO attacked the Nielsen’s Symphony no.4 with commendable vigour and at times violence. Appropriately named “The Inextinguisable”, it suggests the eternal and elemental forces that drive much of this music. The struggle for dominance between strings, brass and percussion characterizes the opening and last night the NSO delivered an electrifying bolt that had us stunned. As the sonic boom dissipated, our ears were cossetted by a gentle “glorioso” melody from the flutes and clarinets, a melody which informs both the third and final movements. The viola interjections were suitably visceral and disturbing, catalysing the music to its climax.

The poco allegretto second movement with its playful pizzicato and innocent woodwinds acted as a welcome contrast to the intense nature of the surrounding movements. What impressed me most here was how well the cello and violin sections were listening to each other in their antiphonal exchange. The slow third movement starts with a scream on the violins which dies away to a gentle melody on the first two cellists. Leader Elaine Clark’s solo was deeply expressive, only to be interrupted aggressively by the cellos.

The final movement reignites the titanic struggle, this time round the timpanists Martin Metrustry and Jonathan Herbert making their presence felt each by hammering out different sets of tritones – what the medievals referred to as the devil in music. It was against this cacophonous backdrop that the lyrical theme from the first movement emerged, inextinguishable and glorious. Jensen, his head held high, brought this music to its inexorable end and the concert to a satisfying conclusion. After such a work, all that was left was to echo Nielsen’s sentiments: “music is life, and as such, inextinguishable.”

***11