Two Warhorses and a Goddess of the Night: The Orchestra Performs

Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève led this week’s Orchestra concerts, and the theme was Scandinavia. Europe’s Northern cluster of states was relatively late to enter the Classical music sweepstakes. Although musicological research has unearthed some earlier worthies, no Scandinavian composer entered the permanent repertory until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The man who made the jump was Norway’s Edvard Grieg, who at the age of twenty-five produced in 1868 a piano concerto that swept the European Continent as few works had before or have since. Playing the score, Franz Liszt reportedly jumped up from the keyboard to sing the principal theme of the Finale, dancing around the room. (Well, it was the Romantic era.) Anton Rubinstein, the Russian virtuoso whose reputation was second only to Liszt’s and who, notoriously critical, was to pan the Tchaikovsky B-Flat Minor Concerto when it appeared a few years later, declared himself “astounded” by Grieg’s genius, and Tchaikovsky himself gushed over the warmth, vitality, and passion of the piece. The only critical response came from Grieg himself, who tinkered with his masterpiece over the years and decided to add two horns to it only weeks before his death in 1907.

The Grieg Concerto was the middle work on the Orchestra’s program, with the German soloist Lars Vogt. It was flanked by a newish work that has been making the rounds, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx (2011), and the symphony that has been the most frequently performed of any by a Scandinavian composer, the Second of Jan Sibelius. Salonen, also a Finn, is best known as a conductor, but he has maintained a parallel career as a composer, and the twenty-minute Nyx, named for the Greek goddess of the night is a work which serves up varying moods and striking sonorities. A hundred years ago, it might have been a tone poem, but Salonen reflects a more contemporary mood of fragmentation and, one might say, over-intellectualization. In ancient mythology, Nyx is a creation figure who represents the union of Chaos and Light from which the cosmos issues, and, as Salonen himself remarks, her nebulousness informs the shifting and episodic nature of his score. I’ll take him at his word for that, but it does raise the question of why so many contemporary composers seem to avoid musical structure like the plague. As with so many others of its ilk, Nyx leaves you with a taste on the palate but not much sense of what you’ve actually consumed.

To proceed to the Grieg Concerto is, in contrast, to enter a world of clearly defined thematic materials and forms that leaves the listener with a work of clear and discernible character. If the work is touched with genius, it is memorable, and continues to reward subsequent hearings over a lifetime. If it’s performed often enough it becomes a warhorse, in the sense of a piece so familiar that one can take its pleasures without effort. Then it requires performers who will work to freshen it, and listeners who will put in a response. No work of quality need ever die, and, with the right rider in the saddle, a warhorse can still profitably run.

Lars Vogt, who impressed recently with a performance of the Goldberg Variations in New York, has clearly put some thought into his Grieg, and his performance was one that did not let the attention flag. If one did not necessarily agree with all his choices—speeded-up passages and sudden dynamic shifts in particular—he stopped short of being mannered, let alone exploitive in the style adopted by some younger pianists. Denève and the Orchestra gave him solid support, and the string passage that opens the Adagio movement was a particular example of the elegance and refinement of the Orchestra at its best.

Jan Sibelius changed without abandoning the world of the classical symphony, permitting his themes to germinate slowly in the manner of the Wagnerian Leitmotif rather than stating them directly at the outset, and his Second Symphony was where he first displayed this technique. Early listeners found this disconcerting, but Sibelius never abandons the idea of symphonic structure as building toward a final sense of unity, and each work as an expressive whole. The Philadelphia Orchestra is as closely associated with the Second as any work in the repertory, and it can phone it in any time. Denève got a robust performance from the musicians, with fine detailing along the way and plenty of power for the big, tantalizing climax that sets the major theme free at the end like a great bird rising from its forest. Classically Nordic: but Sibelius had actually sketched the symphony in Italy. Sometimes you have to get far away to see what’s always near.

The Philadelphia Orchestra in concert, April 20-22, 2017, at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Conducted by Stéphane Denève, with soloist Lars Vogt. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nyx. Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. Jan Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43. 215.893.1999; www.philorch.com

About Robert Zaller 56 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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