Friday, August 12, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

“Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,/Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage
dreams;/Within them dwells [Tapio] the Forest’s mighty God,/And wood-sprites in the gloom weave
magic secrets.” Get it right and the opening of Sibelius’s swansong Tapiola – graced timpani signal,
warmly blended string tone, moulded brass and woodwind, acute dynamics and hairpins – likewise
that farewell glow of B-major closing the work, celebrates a great orchestra. Now into its eleventh
decade, though with origins going back to Grieg in the 1870s, the Oslo Philharmonic – over 100-
strong – under the inspirational Klaus Mäkelä left little doubt of their mega form and credentials. They painted a hypnotic mood-picture: mighty, rustling, threatening, lonely, “the pain of life”, nightfall, unspoken tales. Glorious strings (the stuff of dreams, with antiphonal violins) bathed the Hall in shadows, darkness, filtered light, whispers, cries. Who ever will forget those final eleven bars? and

Awed by the venue but not overwhelmed, spending a three-hour rehearsal in part adjusting to its space
and acoustics, Mäkelä judged Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben to a nicety without histrionics. This was an imposingly disciplined reading, ensemble at a super level, one exposed entry after another placed and exact. The ‘Critics’ opined but never snarled. The Battlefield’ was about latter-day precision fire and attack (splendid off-stage trumpets in the alarum). I’ve heard subjectively ‘greater’, grander, more physically impacting, performances, but few as sheened and gold-plated as this, the orchestra in imperial dress, personality yet etiquette at a premium. Nor many with the ‘Hero’s Companion’ (Strauss’s wife, Pauline) quite so magnificently or poetically portrayed – coquettish then enraptured at the start, eternally loving by the end, ‘Retirement from the World and Fulfilment’. Long in a class of her own, Elise Båtnes, Oslo’s concertmaster (since 2006), never faltered, not merely playing the notes but imbuing them with innumerable layers of inflexion and character. In many ways her understanding and mastery of the role, exquisitely projected, shaped and influenced Mäkelä’s strategy, he framing her cameos with increasing eloquence, placing them at the core of the music. By the end, epic towers behind us, swashbuckling swagger, Don Juan and memories receding, Zarathustra rising, we’d found Asgard, hand in hand for an eternity. What encore, if any, do you follow Heldenleben with? Sibelius’s ‘At the Castle Gate’ or Andante festivo wouldn’t have gone amiss. Instead we got Johann Strauss II: the energised ‘Csardas’ from Ritter Pázmán, Mäkelä just a touch wary of Bull’s Blood, the orchestra purring in high gear.

Clubbing with Liszt, playing a near-hysterical full house, Yuja Wang paused, rattled and eccentrified her way through the First Concerto. Much as in several other high-profile performances she’s done this past season (not all), extremes of tempo, exaggerated dynamics (especially at the quieter end of the spectrum), artificially prolonged cadences, shallow projection and limited cantabile made for an oddly misguided, stylistically mannered eighteen minutes. No questioning her dexterity (glistening trills, finger-to-hammer action as one, trademark gymnastics), but much to unsettle musically. You have to wonder how she’s prepared the piece, who she’s heard or learnt from, what her structural values are? Red-attired but scarcely a red performance. Two encores – Carmen Variations (bullish), Dance of the Blessed Spirits (egg-shell). Whatever would their respective arrangers – Horowitz, Sgambati – have made of it all?