When I tuned in to watch this live-streamed concert by Alan Gilbert and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, at first I was taken aback by the large number of musicians on the stage, with no masks being worn by anyone. Then I recalled that Sweden has marched to a different drummer in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It brought to mind another image from an earlier time – that of pilots during World War 2 when nearly all of Europe was living under blackout conditions. Flying across a shrouded continent, these pilots would speak of seeing the bright lights of Stockholm twinkling in the far distance, as if disconnected from reality.

Alan Gilbert conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nadja Sjöström

Perhaps not disconnected, but several of the pieces selected by Maestro Gilbert do convey a sense of the effervescent. The mainly French program opened with Ravel's Une barque sur l'océan. An evocative performance, unfortunately it didn't convey a sense of mystery at the beginning, instead coming out of the gate at mezzo forte or louder. Gilbert led with a good deal of swoopy gestures, perhaps more than was really necessary to bring Ravel's ocean waves to life. The Stockholm musicians delivered polished playing in the acoustically resplendent Konserthuset auditorium, with Ravel's aquatic "swells" effectively done.

Two other French works on the program were more successfully realized. Lili Boulanger's D'un matin de printemps began with the glistening, crystalline sounds that seemed to be missing from the opening of the Ravel, the little splashes of percussion working their magic. The piece's debt to Debussy is clearly evident, most especially in the darker middle section which more than hints at late Debussy. Solo string and woodwind passages were particularly effective, and the orchestral colors were very fine.

Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane Suite no. 2 was the best-realized piece of the concert. In a finely shaped performance, Gilbert emphasized the underlying rhythmic nature of the music, reminding us that not all French scores of the period are only about impressionistic color. Several parts of the suite are quiet and pensive, and there the solo violin and oboe passages were particularly winsome. Most impressive was when Gilbert gave the orchestra free rein, with the musicians responding with some really fervent, red-blooded playing leading up to a genuinely thrilling conclusion.

Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Schumann with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nadja Sjöström

Amidst the French music, Frank Peter Zimmermann joined the orchestra to present Schumann's Violin Concerto in D minor. This late-career work didn't see the light of day for decades following the composer's death, and it remains far less popular than Schumann's piano and cello concertos. I think that's justified in that the violin concerto has more than a few sections that seem to lack the extra measure of musical inspiration, as if the composer was just going through the motions. Joseph Joachim's famous verdict that the concerto shows "a certain exhaustion which attempts to wring out the last recourse of spiritual energy" has some truth to it.

Zimmermann approached the concerto with the right frame of mind, but even a strong performance can't rescue the sonata-like first movement from being something which doesn't quite add up to the sum of the parts. There are too many rhetorical passages – and a bit too much Sturm und Drang – to deliver a truly satisfying musical experience. Things improve markedly in the second movement, where Schumann offers a keenly lyrical theme and where Zimmermann's sweetly singing violin tone paid rich dividends. Unfortunately, the concluding movement, a rather stolid polonaise, doesn't live up to its initial promise. Still, despite the weaknesses in the score, Zimmermann, Gilbert and the Stockholm players should be credited for making a valiant case for this music.

This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream

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