MUSI / Hammers in the blood: Stephen Johnson on antidotes to dancing trolls from the BBC SO, the CBSO and others in the Barbican's Scandinavian season

OLD prejudices die hard. No doubt there are still many for whom Scandinavian music is summed up in a portmanteau of whispering pine forests, dancing trolls and gloomy heroes in horned helmets. The best cure for that kind of mental laziness would have been compulsory attendance at all last weekend's events in the Barbican's 'Tender Is the North' festival. Worlds of difference separated the two Nielsen symphonies (Nos 5 and 6) in Saturday's magnificent CBSO concert, conducted by Simon Rattle. Put them beside the strikingly variegated contents of Sunday's Sibelius day, or a one-off tour de force like Jan Sandstrom's Trombone Concerto, and the search for common denominators feels even more like an irrelevant parlour game.

There were cross-echoes from time to time. The scherzo of Wilhelm Stenhammar's Serenade displayed what ought to be an unhealthy fascination with harmonies from the scherzo in Sibelius's First Symphony. But the flavour was utterly distinct - thanks in part to the energised, idiomatic playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis. At the opening of their Friday concert they did an equally fine job on Nielsen's Maskarade overture, with string writing that can easily degenerate into frantic fuzziness here all spruce and glowingly good-humoured.

What Magnus Lindberg called the 'narrative sense of directions' in his new Corrente II emerged in this BBC SO world premiere rather like a river in flood - surging, unrelenting and opaque. Even with a score for assistance my memory retained few details, but the forward sweep was compelling. And yet while Jan Sandstrom's Trombone Concerto presents itself as a fun piece - soloist in red leathers mimicking motorcycle noises - its energy and invention take it way beyond Corrente II. There's more here than onomatopoeia: bullfrogs, Aborigine trance-music and the recurring displays of 1,000cc machismo are all drawn into a bizarre but brilliant musical argument. The star Swedish trombonist Christian Lindberg could hardly hope for a better showpiece.

From this to Sibelius' opera The Maiden in the Tower is rather like stepping from a high-tech white- knuckle ride on to a disintegrating pony-cart. How even the young Sibelius could have thought Rafael Hertzberg's characterless libretto was worth more than five minutes' attention is one of music's greater mysteries. Still more perplexing is how it could have inspired him to write something as lovely as the choral writing in Scene 3. In this rare performance at St Giles Cripplegate, Peter Ash, the Covent Garden Festival Orchestra, the New Company Choir and the four soloists put their shoulders to Sibelius' creaking wheels and gave it more impetus than one would have thought possible. The soprano Margareta Haverinen sounded happier telling the story of Sibelius' Luonnotar than as the imprisoned Maiden - as well she might: taxing Luonnotar may be, but the voice-orchestra balance is more sympathetic, and the music incomparably more imaginative and expressive.

There followed a concentrated programme of great Sibelius: the Fifth and Sixth symphonies and Tapiola, played by the LSO under one of the world's leading Sibelians, Sir Colin Davis. It was as authoritative as one would expect: all the processes understood, the climaxes built surely and powerfully, the sound fulsome, the manner grandiose. When it came to authentic Sibelian atmosphere, Ash and his Covent Garden Festival team seemed to have got rather closer - especially in Luonnotar. Still, a conductor who can measure the silences between the Fifth Symphony's final sledgehammer chords so precisely and so effectively has to have this music in his veins.

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