The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of Denmark’s favourite musical son continued on Wednesday with what David Fanning in the programme notes intriguingly deemed a “classic mid-life crisis piece”, his Symphony no. 4 “Inextinguishable”. It was preceded by works from roughly the same time period, around Europe, including a chance to hear Anne Sofie von Otter.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

We began with another composer celebrating his 150th birthday, the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and The Oceanides. However, this was the Yale version – an earlier, shorter version of the piece, coming in at around seven minutes long (rather than ten). The piece started with beautiful delicacy, moving into shimmering, oceanic territory, but it also felt surprisingly superficial. It moved into more aggressive territory, thanks to the strings, and the woodwind section were particularly good throughout. The brass seemed undernourished in places however, and overall the performance felt just a little too gentle.

This was followed by a nod towards Vienna with Alexander Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs. At first supported by Brahms, Zemlinsky became a huge influence on Schoenberg and his disciples, and was much admired by Mahler. With Mahler he shared more than just musical interest, having been involved with Alma Mahler before she married. His continued feelings for her are at the heart of these songs, which linger on lost love and betrayal. Sadly, Anne Sofie von Otter was often drowned by the orchestra, even though it had been reduced in number. The “Song of the Virgin” was the highlight, full or warmth and compassion. Elsewhere I found myself surprisingly unmoved. There were lovely moments; the dark, foreboding the beginning of the first song, the powerful ending of the fourth, and sultry, impassioned finish to the sixth stood out. Overall, however, it was just perhaps a little too genteel a performance for the depth of feeling in the music.

Oramo’s thus-far elegant conducting style was far more suited to Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Originally I found the placement of the interval somewhat curious, creating a much longer second half than first half; however, the deftness in the beginning of the Ravel beautifully echoed the Sibelius. The Prélude was graceful, yet full-bodied, while the folky charm of the Forlane shone through Ravel’s humour (at the time of composition, the Pope had declared that this Viennese folk dance was infinitely preferable to the immoral tango, so Ravel piled sultry harmonies into this version), though it perhaps needed a bit more spice in the restatements of the main theme to avoid feeling repetitive. Just as I felt the Menuet was beginning to flag, the orchestra burst forth with renewed energy, and the final Rigaudon was full of vigorous energy, even in its slower moments.

And yet, when the first bars of Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” sounded, it became clear that everything else had been a mere prelude to this main event, for the orchestra as much as the audience. Conductor and orchestra moved up a gear to deliver an astounding symphonic performance, full of “that which craves life”, as Nielsen wrote to his wife in 1914 to describe the idea he had had for a new work. The symphony crashed into life, driving on with power and strength (thanks in no small part to the brass finally giving the music all their weight), while the delicate exchange between solo flute and horn moved us into territory full of bite.

The woodwind enjoyed their time in the limelight in the second, pastoral movement, giving us a brief respite before we were thrown back into the fire by screaming strings and timpani in the third movement. This was contrasted by radiance in quieter moments, before being interrupted by wonderfully aggressive woodwinds that started us on the path towards a gigantic climax that seemed impossible to beat. And yet it was, as we moved into the fourth movement with more frenetic energy, even it its sweeping moments. The two wonderful timpanists shone in a primal battle between them that, in other hands, could have felt oddly incongruous, but here was full of the life-force that brought the symphony to a rousing climax. The spirit of Nielsen’s intention was well and truly captured by all.

****1