This concert of Carl Nielsen’s pivotal Symphony No 3 (his “Sinfonia espansiva”) marks the beginning of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s series of the great Danish composer’s symphonic works. Originally to have been led by the SSO’s Danish chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard, the orchestra finally took to the City Halls stage with late replacement Geoffrey Paterson at the helm.
Not that this was a matter of concern for the audience, whose numbers were considerably reduced by Scotland’s current Covid measures. Paterson conducted the concert – which opened with Bartók’s Divertimento and the world premiere of Erika Fox’s David spielt vor Saul – with a winning combination of assuredness, agility and enthusiasm.
The Third Symphony was something of a breakthrough for Nielsen. Even now, 110 years since the piece premiered in Copenhagen (under the composer’s baton), one can hear the composer taking bold, confident steps forward in symphonic composition.
The first movement is characterised by the ebb and flow between charming, slow pastorals and bright, arresting explosions of orchestral expression. Little wonder that, recalling the first movement on opening night, the composer’s friend Thorvald Nielsen (no relation) exclaimed: “We all felt quite out of breath. Everybody realised we had been present at a historic moment.”
Much has been said about the relative absence of darkness in this piece, compared with Nielsen’s later symphonies. Yet, in the second movement, there is a yearning, in the beautiful music for strings, that could almost be an emotional precursor of Henryk Górecki’s anguished Third Symphony.
That yearning in Nielsen is, perhaps, a contemplative, if not dark, night of the soul. It gives way to a dawn that’s marked by the symphony’s most distinctive moment; namely, a sudden, welcome intercession of wordless song (which was performed beautifully for the SSO by soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Benjamin Appl).
Soothing in its pastoralism, invigorating in its orchestral grandeur, Nielsen’s Third has shades of his great, Finnish peer Sibelius. For sure, one can hear echoes of the rousing patriotism of Smetana, albeit delivered with a Scandinavian sense of control.
It was bold and intelligent programming on the part of the SSO to open this concert with the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s Divertimento. Born some 15 years after Nielsen, Bartók was a pioneer of the modernist generation.
In this piece, we hear that regular theme in Bartók’s work, the interplay between the enduring energy of Hungarian folk music and the avant-garde jaggedness of modernity. By turns harmonic and discordant, soaring and premonitory, the piece is simultaneously grand and intimate, somewhat like the City Halls venue itself.
Vienna-born British composer Erika Fox is one of the great figures in the generation of modernist composers who succeeded Bartók, Schoenberg and their contemporaries. It was a privilege, therefore, to be present at the world premiere of her David spielt vor Saul, a piano concerto inspired by a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke and performed by the acclaimed pianist Julian Jacobson.
Gloriously sharp, yet beautifully nuanced, the piece thrusts itself upon its audience as Jacobson, full hands splayed across the keyboard, sends out shards of fractured sound. Like a splash of ice water to the face, this introduction opens out to a work that is, by turns, exciting and unsettling. This fascinating, diverse, excellently performed concert was recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3. MB