Classical; Down on the farm

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MAYBE IT is too much to expect Swedes to get the point of Danish music. They are so urbane. The Danes are a nation of farmers, and none more so than Carl Nielsen. It is characteristic that the "life-force" theme, which dominates his Fourth Symphony, descends steadily into mother earth. Wagner would have had it flying up to heaven. The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra announces itself as Sweden's premier band, but, even with the encouragement of Neeme Jarvi, they presented this as a tidy, integrated piece that progressed with a bland logic from its busy opening to a sonorous, well-heeled conclusion.

In fact, Jarvi seems to have lost some of his fire since the days when he was chief conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Or perhaps he has had to adapt to an ensemble that plays without physicality, humour or impudence.

There was an additional factor on this occasion: the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall sets insuperable problems of balance, with a 20ft-high wall just behind the brass and percussion that amplifies the orchestra's big guns and muffles the strings. Nielsen's music is rustic, bucolic, full of wanton intrusions, with flitting and fidgeting motifs that come from nowhere like flies through a window.

Here, the intruding strangers were eased into place with discretion. There was no toughness in the string tone; the players looked as though they were involved in chamber music. Horns glowed, flutes wobbled sweetly, oboes and clarinets failed to project. Swedish farmers evidently have perfect manners. Refinement, precision, sobriety were aplenty, but the muck and clamour of the cowshed were banished.

As for real Swedish music, there was a new work, King Tide, by Anders Hillborg. It was a sea piece, describing the surge of the tide across the world. The orchestra had commissioned it; there seemed no other reason for performing this prolonged sound-effect, resembling the backing track of a documentary. Stirring note-clusters created a pentatonic shimmer and billowed into vistas of majestic euphony, a bit like the opening of James MacMillan's Confession of Isobel Gowdie. But unlike that work, Hillborg eschewed all melody and rhythm. The piece simply died away without fulfilling any promises of contrast or eloquence.

The bass-baritone, Willard White, did what he was best at: singing Wagner. However, in the monologue from The Flying Dutchman, he caught the orchestra's malaise; the performance was intellectual, but without spontaneity. Jarvi conducted a steady four-in-a-bar through everything. There was a springing equestrian lilt - Jarvi's best feature - in "The Ride of the Valkyries", and White seemed reborn in Wotan's parting from Brunnhilde from Die Walkure. Jarvi persisted in his foursquare prose, avoiding breadth, but nevertheless this performance breathed a disarming sincerity.

Raymond Monelle