Daniel Barenboim, one of the great contemporary champions of Edward Elgar, expressed a somewhat dismissive view of the composer to The New York Times last year: “If Elgar had not come through this earth, the development of music would have been the same.” That may be true – hardly anyone would speak of him as they do contemporaries such as Mahler or Stravinsky or Schoenberg – but it also neglects the wit, style and sentiment to be found throughout his body of work. Not every artist needs to be relentlessly innovative when they can lead from a place of harmonic beauty. For a reminder of this, listen to Sea Pictures, as performed by Katarina Karnéus and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

Katarina Karnéus and the RSPO
© Nadja Sjöström

The song cycle, a pinnacle of the contralto concert repertoire, offers little in the way of narrative beyond their haunting evocations of the water. As such, vocal shading, word painting and emotional engagement from the soloist go a long way. Karnéus displayed sovereign English diction throughout, including mastery of the elongated vowels that can prove tricky even for native speakers. She occasionally hit a note somewhat below pitch, and her middle voice sounded somewhat hollow, but she compensated with a plush lower register and resplendent high notes that reminded the listener of her early career as a coloratura mezzo.

Karnéus’s interpretation was notable for its dramatic variety. She approached Sea Slumber Song delicately, like a mother soothing her child to sleep, while In Haven (Capri) was characterized by its playfulness. Sabbath Morning at Sea and The Swimmer emerged with operatic grandeur. Contemporary conductors love to draw Wagnerian parallels in Elgar’s music, but Saraste instead highlighted an almost Ravellian lyricism in Where Corals Lie. The Swimmer and Sea Slumber Song sounded more anticipatory of Britten’s sonic tug-of-war between placidity and menace in his Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.

Elsewhere, the program balanced old and new. Haydn’s Symphony no. 103 in E flat major “Drumroll” received a spirited performance, still somewhat lacking fresh perspective – a shame, since it remains one of the most inventive compositions ever written. Percussion played a key role too in Open Ground, by the Russian-Swedish Victoria Borisova-Ollas, which opened the concert. Inspired by a Salman Rushdie novel, it erupts with jutting arpeggios, brass chorales and a slightly unsettling piano melody, all representing a sudden earthquake. The piece makes a big noise, but Borisova-Ollas allows it to fade away with a few whispered grace notes, elegant and somewhat foreboding. Think of them as aftershocks.

This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream