Prom 15: Znaider/ Danish National Orchestra / Dausgaard, Royal Albert Hall, London

By Bayan Northcott
Saturday 07 December 2013 02:31
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Carl Nielsen's Violin Concerto (1911) has never quite edged into the standard repertoire, and it is not difficult to hear why. Lightly scored for the most part, and cast in a curiously wayward four-movement structure with no less than three extended cadenzas running, in all, to some 36 minutes, it singularly lacks his usual symphonic drive. Yet there are moments of quirkiness and lyricism scattered through the work as characteristic and touching as he ever wrote. All it requires to reveal its charms is a suitable programme context – preferably of modestly scored classical repertoire – plus a sympathetic soloist.

The latter, it certainly got in the Proms debut of the young Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider: pure of tone, elegant of phrasing and with a special feeling for moments of still intensity. The visiting Danish National Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard accompanied with point and affection and the concerto might have made a real impression on what was only its second Proms performance ever, had it not been immediately preceded by the exhausting demands of a complex new symphony scored for vast orchestra and already lasting some 33 minutes.

This was the British premiere of the Sixth Symphony (1997-99) by the leading Danish composer Per Norgard, now in his 70th year. Inspired by millennial thoughts, and subtitled "At the End of the Day", the piece is concerned with how apparent endings harbour unexpected new beginnings; both in the large-scale cycle of its three-movement design and in the incessant permutational processes of its chill, turbid textures.

Quite how those processes related to the work's relatively conventional rhetoric, however, was less than clear, while the large array of low instruments Norgard had assembled for a descent to the depths in his slow movement went for disappointingly little in the general flux. Sadly, one sensed a work less of spiritual ends and beginnings than of disparate artistic ends and means.

As if all this was not enough, we still had the 45 minutes of Brahms's First Symphony to come: a ponderous "traditional"-style reading with winds straining to assert themselves over a huge string section. Ensemble was sometimes untidy, tuning occasionally suspect and the performance only seemed to acquire character and drive in the finale. Well, it was a steamy night and the Norgard had doubtless devoured most of the rehearsal time. But not even a fizzing account of Nielsen's Maskarade Overture by way of encore could quite rescue yet another ill-planned Prom.

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