MUSIC / Tender parting: Stephen Johnson looks back over the Barbican's month-long Scandinavian festival

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The Independent Culture
SO, FAREWELL then, 'Tender Is the North'. A month after it all began I'm no nearer understanding the title, but it does seem to have caught people's imaginations. Attendances have been good, not only at the central Barbican concerts, but even at fringe events like Kaija Saariaho's New Music at the Place Theatre series.

It also seems to have been well timed - perhaps in times of terrifying change, cultures that embody values of civilised co-operation become more appealing. But as far as contemporary music goes, it is difficult to think of a geographical area where the mix is richer or more dynamic. Saariaho's selection at the Place concentrated on modernism (not, it seems, as endangered a species in Scandinavia as here). Whether by accident or design, the composer who emerged as most impressive was Saariaho herself - intermittently in the new piece, Amers, consistently in the imaginative Nymphea for string quartet and electronics. The balance of styles in the five concerts was admirable, the inclusion of a '20th-century classic' in all but the last less so. It's unlikely that this drew any extra listeners, and one more new piece per concert would not have been too burdensome.

A month on, and a letter from artistic director Humphrey Burton notwithstanding, I still think it's a pity big Russian works were allowed to dominate the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra's two inaugural concerts. Apart from Rachmaninov's Second Symphony and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (both beautifully played) the strongest memory from those remains Leif Ove Andsnes's brilliant, uplifting performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto.

But that memory pales a little beside the two outstanding Barbican achievements: Simon Rattle's Nielsen symphonic cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Sir Colin Davis's epic journey through the orchestral works of Sibelius with the London Symphony Orchestra. Nielsen's star has long been in the ascendant, but with performances like Rattle's of the Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies any residual resistance should surely have collapsed. After that, Davis's Sibelius could sound a touch impersonal, for all its power and intellectual mastery - though not, fortunately, in that great roof- raiser, the Second Symphony.

No festival can contain everything, but certain omissions were striking - quite a few of them Danish names. It would have been interesting to have heard something from the 'father of Danish music', Niels Gade, or the 'Danish Ives', Rued Langgaard, or something rather meatier than we did hear from those two outstanding contemporary Danes, Per Norgard and Poul Ruders - or from the Finn Aulis Sallinen. Then there's that whole generation that chronologically links Nielsen and Sibelius with today's Scandinavian composers: a few well-chosen works from the likes of Niels Viggo Bentzon, Harald Saeverud, Karl-Birger Blomdahl and particularly Vagn Holmboe might have surprised some of those with cultivated allergies to conservative Nordic symphonists.

But the main aim - to explore the diversity and spiritual unity of a culture, or rather cluster of cultures - does seem to have been achieved, impressively. Whatever the images one takes away - the CBSO's side-drummer battling heroically in Nielsen's Fifth, Anne Sofie von Otter crowned with glittering candles at the end of her Wigmore Hall recital - they seem in some indefinable way characteristic of something larger. And if there's still plenty left to explore, so much the better.

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