Arts: Couch grass and cowpats

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The Independent Culture




ENCOURAGED BY the success of their recent Beethoven series at the City Hall, Glasgow, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with Osmo Vanska, have now embarked on the complete set of the Nielsen symphonies.

There is music, and then there is Nielsen, somebody said. Certainly, these masterpieces require a radically different sensibility from Brahms or Sibelius. Nielsen's anti-melodies, accompanied by anti-harmonies and framed in structures that burst out in all directions, would sound merely incompetent if it were not for the obvious genius of the man.

Initial impressions were not good. Vanska goes for vitality and energy rather than breadth, and the crude strength of the opening of the First Symphony sounded like a carve-up, especially as the balance was all wrong, with muffled strings, barking brass and cataclysmic timpani. As the music progressed, it became obvious that the poor balance was caused by great sheets of hard Perspex, elegantly painted, which had been installed behind the orchestra. It is a common error. The brass, wind and percussion were amplified and the string tone was lost in the clamour.

The symphony improved as it went along. The pastoral triplets of the slow movement hung heavily in mid-air, as though the Vanska energy were somehow drugged or cataleptic; this suited Nielsen's pastoralism, which is always a matter of couch grass and cowpats, rather than perfumed shepherdesses.

There were initially several different orchestral ideas about the odd syncopations of the scherzo, but it came together in the reprise. The finale had lashings of snap and bite: yet even allowing for the unbalanced sound, the listener would have welcomed a greater massiveness to the piece.

The other symphony - the Second, entitled "The Four Temperaments" - was much better. The players seemed to have got under the skin of this strangest of composers.

The explosive first movement never even paused for breath, and the portrayal of phlegm in the next movement was a clownish, stupefying jog-trot - a strikingly original conception.

The slow movement presented an unforgettable spectacle. Here was a brisk, officerly conductor directing a vigorous, young-sounding orchestra, in a piece by an ebullient and cheerful composer, with the subject of "melancholia". The constant musical sighs came over almost as jokes. It was sour, mocking, unreal, constantly shrugging its shoulder with a contented resignation: quite wonderful.

The "sanguine" finale saw composer and conductor on home ground. This hearty knees-up of rollicking peasants swept you away entirely. It was marred only by a slow string episode in which the violins seemed to grope for the notes.

Something was wrong with the pianist, Cristina Ortiz, in the Second Rachmaninov Concerto. She was too loud, too fast, too slow and she inflated the phrases, whether in slow cantilena or swift passagework, with irrelevant lumps and blobs. She can play the notes, of course. But the exquisite melancholy - real, this time - of the piece was just assassinated.

The only good moment, the temperamental cadenza in the middle movement, was spoilt by the sound of a baby crying in the audience. What ever next?