Conductor John Storgårds is clearly passionate about his homeland. The chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds has recorded the complete Sibelius symphonies and will release a recording of the Nielsen symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic this year. It was a treat to hear this conductor in his element as he led the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in works of three Nordic composers. Ranging from the famous Grieg Piano Concerto to a lesser known work of Sibelius, this concert featured a vast array of orchestral colour evoking the shimmering landscapes of the North.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Sibelius’ tone poem Night Ride and Sun Rise was a unique and atmospheric work requiring a great deal of control and care. A driving ostinato persisted through much of the piece, infusing the work with a chugging quality. The string section effectively executed this driving rhythm with evenness and persistence. Dynamics played an important role in the work, giving the impression of distance. The timpani was a far off rumble while the ongoing rhythms would move to the foreground and then slowly move further away. Over this rhythmic pattern, woodwind fragments broke through the texture insistently, then subsiding. The strings maintained a rich tone through a dark, lyrical melody as it drove towards the climax of the piece. The brass then emerged, creating warmth through careful blend. The orchestra wonderfully evoked the night-time journey and gradual Northern sunrise.

From this lesser known work we turned to the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor with pianist André Laplante as the soloist. Specializing in Romantic piano works, Laplante’s style was well-suited to the concerto. The bold opening was accomplished with flair, Laplante dramatically making his way down the piano as he played the well-known theme of the work. Laplante was also able to achieve a powerful sound in the first movement, matched by the strength of the orchestra. The pacing of the work was clear, providing direction through the piece. The second movement showcased the gentler side of Laplante’s playing, the light rippling matching the softer character. The orchestra, which played a more independent role in this movement, created a serene, floating atmosphere through delicate balance. Virtuosity came forth in the third movement, a dance fraught with scalar passages up and down the keyboard. The orchestra was forceful, pulsing rhythmically. From this frenzy emerged a more contemplative mood, leading the piece to a calm end. Laplante remained dramatic throughout the work, in tune with the many moods and characters of the work.

Last on the program was Storgårds’ specialty: Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4 entitled “The Inextinguishable”. A tumultuous work, the dark intensity of this symphony was influenced by the composer’s experience of the First World War. Opening with great shrieks and a cacophony of sounds, the strings progressed in to rhythmic unison lines. Storgårds style was serious and stoic, his motions forceful. The violent gestures of the music were conveyed in Storgårds’ aggressive actions. His approach clearly impacted the music as he conjured the strength of the brass and the timpani. With each movement played attaca, the symphony flowed seamlessly from one mood to another. Storgårds calmed for the second movement, where a lighter texture was created by foregrounding pairs of woodwinds. The austere third movement featured imitative strings in dialogue with the timpanists, whose dramatic performance was a highlight. Through runs and shimmering textures, Storgårds guided the audience through the stream of varied events to a more hopeful atmosphere of the conclusion.

While works of Nordic composers are often considered to be dark, brooding or bleak, this concert featured the Romantic, warm side of this music. The orchestra took care in evoking the imagery suggested by the program of each work, conveying a traveler’s excitement, the drama of a young romantic and the inextinguishable hope of man. 

***11