How to compare Nielsen and Ives? The relative humility of their creative personae is, perhaps, a similarity. They also share a passion for folk music and the great traditions of the classical canon. They were alive at roughly the same time. Possible similarities aside, however, the impact of their work is, on the whole, wildly contrasting. This was certainly a concert of two halves.

Henning Kraggerud © Robert Romik
Henning Kraggerud
© Robert Romik
The first half brought the curtain down on this year’s 150th anniversary survey of Nielsen, although not until after a performance of Gordon Jacob’s slightly over the top arrangement of the National Anthem, originally composed for the Queen’s coronation and performed here to mark her majesty’s becoming the longest serving monarch in British history.

Springtime on Funen is a short cantata that emerged out of a competition for texts responding to Denmark’s landscape and people; the prize being that Nielsen would set the winning text to music. By a stroke of good fortune, the chosen text was a series of pastoral poems drawing inspiration from Nielsen’s native island of Funen – a quiet, rural place located between wild Jutland to the West and the more heavily populated Zealand to the East. Managing to balance simplicity of tone with subtle harmonic control, which prevents the music from ever becoming twee, it is an innocent yet deeply felt work. The soloists matched the expressive demands of the music without over-egging the pudding and all made a game attempt at delivering the Danish text. Soprano Malin Christensson particularly shone in this regard, her Swedish background no doubt aiding her delivery of the Scandinavian vowels. The orchestra accompanied with a lightness of touch typified by the sensitive dialogue between the woodwind section and bass-baritone Neal Davies in the third movement. The combined forces of the Tiffin Boys’ and Girls’ schools choirs provided energetic relief, playing their part with aplomb.  

Nielsen’s Violin Concerto is rarely heard in this country, according to the programme it has only been played at the Proms twice before, a fact that is explored in more detail elsewhere in Bachtrack’s own pages. Suffice to say it is a strange piece: over-long in places and lacking a compelling dramatic arc. It can be an effective piece, however, but these negative impressions were brought to the front of the mind by Henning Kraggerud’s distinctly uninspiring performance. Lacking any semblance of interpretive intent, the impression was of a man keen simply to negotiate the concerto’s many lengthy and challenging solos with as few hiccups as possible, a sense heightened by Kraggerud’s unusual decision to play from the sheet music. The orchestra played well again, with the BBCSO’s woodwind section distinguishing themselves once more. Kraggerud delivered an encore, a delicate piece of his own creation that matched his playing to beautiful effect. 

The second half of this evening’s programme was all about Charles Ives. A performance of his Fourth Symphony was prefaced by the Crouch End Festival Chorus’s singing of four American Hymns, all of which appear embedded within the dense space of Ives’ Symphony. After the performance of the Symphony itself, one was left wondering why it has not become a yearly fixture at the proms. Beethoven’s Ninth and Ives’ Fourth has a nice ring to it. Suffice to say the way in which the Symphony ambitiously fuses a deeply personal language, a language verging on the abstruse at times, with the search for answers to truly universal questions seems perfectly suited to a mass-audience festival of classical music. The practical challenges – two conductors, over a hundred musicians, and a purposefully out of tune piano – are significant, but these are challenges that can be superseded in the name of bringing people together at an event like the Proms. Did I mention that the running time, less than half that of Beethoven’s Ninth, makes it much more programming friendly than other works of similar scope?

The performance was not, to be fair, revelatory in and of itself. The tension of trying to maintain Ives’s mad polymetric textures was audible and there were moments, particularly in the third movement, where one would have wished for a greater luxuriousness of sound. Nevertheless, this was the kind of performance that the Proms are all about: professional, ambitious, and deeply moving.