Thomas Dausgaard conducts with his body. A shift in his posture, without engaging hands or arms, is enough indication for his Swedish Chamber Orchestra to execute subtly graduated dynamic shifts. And perhaps it was the sensitive acoustics of Koerner Hall, but I don’t recall having heard a finer separation of sonic textures and registers than those Dausgaard elicited from the dialogue of self and soul in Beethoven’s Coriolan overture. Despite the thinness of a chamber string sound, the orchestra perfectly dramatizes the two musical horns of the proud General Coriolanus’ dilemma. Orchestral turbulence, made convincingly resonant by the impressive bass section, sings of his bellicose anger; and his family supplicates for mercy in lyric wind and string passages. Aided by judicious use of silent rests and melodic horns, Dausgaard tapers the dramatic urgency of the General’s torment off in the direction of its sad, slow, wary acceptance of a doom that arrives as both musical resolution and emotional relief.

Swedish Chamber Orchestra © Ulla-Carin Ekblom
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
© Ulla-Carin Ekblom

Garrick Ohlsson joined the ensemble as soloist for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major. Ohlsson is noted for the “muscular technique” of his playing. In this instance Ohlsson demonstrated the power of his technique by the lightness of his touch and the fluidity of his runs. Some performers decide to play this concerto as a dramatic debate in which the voices of piano and orchestra struggle for dominance. One such instance describes the orchestra attempting “to subdue a meek piano but as the piano’s voice grows in strength the orchestra is sent slinking away and its last words are a mere rumble”. Dausgaard and Ohlsson decided differently. Ohlsson’s opening chords are almost weightless, and Dausgaard manages his forces gently to balance the piano solo. The sparkling wit of Ohlsson’s arpeggios and scales flash like sunlight off the richly variegated spring colours of his chamber orchestra. If there was an excellence that stood out it was Ohlsson’s astonishing execution of Beethoven’s first-movement cadenza. The concertmaster could not take her eyes off the keyboard until, towards the end, Ohlsson relaxed the tension and eased the cadenza into the rainbow-tinted serenity of its conclusion. Dausgaard seized the moment, grew it hugely into a crescendo that left the usually well-mannered audience no choice but to applaud at the end of the movement.

Though this concerto is not known to have a program, there is a persistent theory (initiated in 1859 by Beethoven’s biographer Adolf Bernhard Marx) that the Andante depicts imagery of Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades. The gravely meek demeanour of Ohlsson’s piano passages linked in the opening theme with the robust tone of the orchestra brought rather different imagery to my mind. I thought of the final scene of Milton’s Paradise Lostthat show how Adam and Eve “hand in hand with wandring steps and slow, Through Eden took thir solitarie way.” There is fury in the chromatic cadenza with its breathtaking changes of pace and dynamic. Ohlsson grows it to a towering crescendo. Then this fury is tamed as Dausgaard decrescendos the ensemble to a mere whisper. In the Finale, the orchestral tones are gentle as a heartbreak. Dausgaard somehow integrates the piano as a member of the orchestra. Ohlsson’s touch is so uncannily light, it brought to mind these lines by E.E. Cummings: “No one, not even the rain has such small hands.” The encore, some Debussy, had even smaller hands.

After intermission, the 50 minutes of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony had a swelling, emotional richness I can only intimate by the word “psychedelic”. One felt Dausgaard made all the right decisions in managing the driving rhythms, harmonic tensions and extreme dynamic changes of Beethoven’s orchestration in the first movement. The funereal pace of the second movement was ideally weighted in the basses: the trumpets and winds brought clarity without being overbright. The Finale surged with Promethean passion. The audience demanded two encores.

****1