The trend for Nordic music continues apace, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra presented a fascinating programme which opened with Sibelius and concluded with Wilhelm Stenhammar’s little-performed but substantial Symphony no 1 in F major. By way of a filling in this Scandinavian sandwich, Steven Osborne played Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, this completing his Beethoven concerto cycle with the BBC Scottish.

Andrew Manze © Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

To open, and to keep the Sibelius flame alight in this anniversary year, we were treated to a very lively Karelia Overture. Written as part of the Karelia Suite, but generally excluded, the music is rich and patriotic. From initial deep brass rumblings, the strings picked up a sweeping tune with woodwind and brass bursting through. Conductor Andrew Manze quietened the large string section down to a barely audible shimmer before the seven horns briefly introduced the familiar Karelia fanfare (used in the Suite) as if emerging through the Finnish dawn mists. After a solemn reflective oboe solo, the patriotic music returned, with Manze building the piece back up to a well-controlled finish.

Steven Osborne chose the piano for the Concert Hall when it opened ten years ago, and is always a popular soloist in Perth. A large crowd turned out to hear him tackle Beethoven’s brilliant Second Piano Concerto and were rewarded with a performance which was by turns breathtakingly sensitive and brilliantly exuberant. Manze set a bold brisk tempo in the long introduction, and then a sympathetic accompaniment to Osborne’s performance bringing out call and response motifs in the strings and some fine woodwind detail. It was Osborne’s performance which really drew us in, making it all appear effortless, and particularly thrilling in the cadenza at the end of the first movement starting off simply and becoming turbulent. A thoughtful Adagio was followed by a lively Rondo, Osborne making the music positively dance as streams of notes tumbled from his piano.

This performance of Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar’s First Symphony was billed as (probably) the first by a professional orchestra in the UK, in which case the Dalkeith Symphony orchestra, which premiered it in 1985, must have had a particularly good horn section as the horns thread right through this extensive work from start to finish. Stenhammar’s early influences were Germanic, with Bruckner being prominent as the Tranquillo opening horn sextet clearly demonstrated. The music style was very romantic and lyrical with continuous development in the first movement which almost became a Germanic waltz as the brass crowned the main theme in a thundering swell of music before calmer conditions prevailed once again.

It is refreshing to have the violas, so often hidden away in the middle of the stage, placed at the front of the platform to the conductor’s right, and they began the beautiful second movement with an oboe playing a Swedish folk melody which was developed into flowing tune, becoming dotted and finally a blazing climax of sound with lush brass orchestration, before the oboe was heard once again. The third movement was almost like chamber music, lyrically bright, but restless as themes tried to develop with a trio of clarinets ending the dreamy sequence. The final movement presented quicker and more impassioned versions of earlier themes with the whole orchestra whipping itself into a thrilling turmoil, before the horn chorale reappeared to calm things down. Andrew Manze clearly enjoyed this work and controlled his forces with utmost precision, especially the seven horn players who were kept particularly busy acting as soloists, or in a challenging chromatic commentary, often a single player adding a topping to the orchestral themes.

Stenhammar, pianist, composer and conductor who regularly programmed both Sibelius and Nielsen, recognised his own early work was somewhat derivative. His reaction when he heard the Nordic freshness of Sibelius Second Symphony was to withdraw his First for later revision – something he never got round to doing. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra certainly made the case for showcasing this rediscovered work, particularly in this year to set alongside the Nielsen and Sibelius we will be hearing.