Joyful tunes

PROMS 17 & 19 ROYAL ALBERT HALL / RADIO 3 LONDON
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The Independent Culture
THE PROMS took a splash in northern waters this weekend, beginning with the first two pieces of this year's featured composer, the Dane Carl Nielsen. Neeme Jarvi broke the ice with Springtime on Funen, an enchanting cantata that dances with buoyant, folklike melody as Nielsen recalls his country childhood. It's one of those works that makes your soul leap; the life-affirming quality that informs all of Nielsen's music springs from every bar. Those melodies should be part of everyone's armoury of tunes, but the work is heard so rarely that we don't get a chance to start whistling them - so three cheers to the Proms for giving it an outing. Two cheers to the performance, though: want of brightness in the choral sound and lagging tempi took away some of the fizz.

Where Jarvi scored unequivocally was with a first hearing in Britain of music by his fellow Estonian, Rudolf Tobias, still the greatest Estonian composer, who died in 1918 aged 45. Two brief choruses - settings of the Whitsun hymn "Know Ye Not" and of Psalm 42 - showed the nobility and strength of Tobias's post-Brahmsian language. Maybe one day the Proms will give us his masterpiece, the oratorio The Mission of Jonah. The market will need some softening up first, and these powerful miniatures made an obvious starting-point.

At the centre of Jarvi's concert was Aerial, the new trumpet concerto by HK Gruber, just the mixture of sly wit and Austrian obliquity you would expect from this archetypically Viennese composer - and a metrical nightmare for the conductor, Jarvi meticulously beating Gruber's wrong-footing seven- beat bars while the soloist, Hakan Hardenberger, swept effortlessly through the orchestra's kaleidoscopic textures. This one can expect to become a major addition to the repertoire.

Proms commissions rarely enjoy an audience reaction of the sheer warmth earned the following night by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, now 53, when Yakov Kreizberg and his Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gave Vasks' Second Symphony the kind of first performance that composers dream about. Like so many artists with a conscience, Vasks suffered under the Soviet occupation, and was driven into the private expression of resistance. In Vasks' music, it took the form of a creative contrast between the ugliness of the external world and an idyllic inner sanctum where man can rediscover his spirituality.

His Second Symphony, lasting almost 40 minutes, exploits these contrasts on a large scale. Against his representation of our harsh temporal existence, for which Vasks unleashes the full orchestra, he sets islands of sorrowful calm, illuminated by music of rare beauty, with long, expressive string lines and delicate woodwind writing - all with a direct emotional impact that brought the audience flocking to shake his hand in gratitude.

Martin Anderson

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