ORCHESTRAL MUSIC Danish Music Festival St John's, Smith Square, London
Thursday 17 July 1997
There remains a host of Danish composers whose names are hardly ever spoken abroad (let alone pronounced correctly), including such magnificent individuals as Rued Langgaard, Vagn Holmboe and Per Norgard.
It was left to two young Englishmen, the composer Matthew Taylor and the conductor Tom Hammond, to organise the 1997 Danish Music Festival, though with support from Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and the Danish Music Information Centre (MIC). The six concerts were almost as striking for what they didn't include as for what they did. There were, for instance, no composers under the age of 40, and Ruders and Norgard were exhibited at their least challenging: Ruders by Breakdance for brass, and Norgard by Pastorale for strings, derived from his hit score for the film Babette's Feast.
Still, opportunities to enjoy live performances of Holmboe's music in London are rare enough to make what we heard especially valuable. In Tuesday's tribute to the composer, who died last September, aged 86, two Haydn symphonies framed the late Dane's tough, compelling Chamber Symphony No 1 - a fine example of how to make much out of little, thematically speaking - and Holmboe's last completed work, the Concerto for String Quartet and String Orchestra. Concertos that treat the string quartet as a solo instrument and pit it against the orchestra can be unwieldy affairs (for my taste, for example, the Martinu). Holmboe's solution was unique: the quartet emerges from, then blends with the orchestra - as though you are seeing now individual trees, now a wood. Conducting the City of London Sinfonia, Matthew Taylor made excellent sense of it all: both the active surface and the serene background.
A short Holmboe piece had its premiere in Saturday's concert, given by the Helios Sinfonia, ably conducted by Tom Hammond: Prelude to a Maple Tree (Holmboe devoted half his life to planting trees, and there's now a sizeable forest on the land he owned in Denmark). This was no Delius- like reverie, but a dynamic and colourful miniature, again very convincingly played. The glory of the evening, however, was the Norwegian violinist Marianne Thorsen's performance of Nielsen's Violin Concerto. Why isn't this joyous, abundantly tuneful work better known? Perhaps because Nielsen puts his roof-raising final climax at the end of the first movement rather than the finale. In purely commercial terms that might be a miscalculation - but what Nielsen-lover would have it otherwise? Thorsen has nothing of the Vanessa-Mae or of that other, Finnish soft-porn sensation, Linda Brava, about her - thank God. The excitement is in the playing itself, technically first-rate and full of love for this very lovable music. And if that isn't the kind of sentiment to set the record company men-in-suits groping for their pocket calculators, let's hope the signs are right, and their days are truly numbered.
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