Saturday, May 9, 2020

Göteborgs Konserthus, Götaplatsen 8, Gothenburg, Sweden

Guest reviewer, Ateş Orga

Controversially, Sweden isn’t in Covid-19 lockdown, it’s a country pursuing the “herd immunity” approach, relying on “individual responsibility” and common-sense physical distancing. Public gatherings of more than fifty people, nevertheless, are banned, leading to the closure of concert halls and theatres. Like Barrie Kosky and the Komische Oper Berlin, the Göteborgs Symfoniker has tackled the situation with class, inventiveness and good humour, webcasting short or medium-length programmes, keeping their players in positive interactive form doing what they do best. Back in April there was the enticing prospect of Hummel’s 1836 arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for flute, violin, cello and piano. A few days ago we had elegantly judged readings of Dvořák’s Wind and String Serenades, urbane “love message” music for a warm spring evening. Much to enjoy. To be expected, the HD/UHD streaming is admirable, with sharp, pertinent camera work and demonstration audio. Endeavour of such quality, taking us within music and performance, offering a frequently better than auditorium seat, deserves support: the smallness of online ‘live’ audiences so far, below two-hundred an event, is surprising.

This matinée found Santtu-Matias Rouvali in relaxed form, engaging with his orchestra in lively, smiling exchanges, he, exacting as ever, happy to chat beforehand, they crisply responsive, Sara Trobäck leading in her calm way, enjoying the chemistry of the moment. Playing to a silent hall in darkness doesn’t come naturally but the band coped, Rouvali not averse to an occasional thespian gesture and touches of amusement to lighten the experience. Andreas Lindhal, the orchestral manager, and the Dutch flautist Marjolein Vermeeren (ex-RAM) hosted proceedings (in English) with charm and insight, not a gushing phrase between them (BBC presenters take note). It all had the easy informality of an occasion somewhere between rehearsal, recording studio and concert, (chamber) orchestra in black, Rouvali signature casual, hungry to be back on the podium after weeks of wood-cutting, stone-working and gardening in his forest home in Finland, his first concert since the orchestra’s aborted Japanese tour in February.

Lars-Erik Larsson’s welcome three-movement pre-war Pastoral Suite (1938), a Rouvali first, came off splendidly – pacing, paragraphing, rhythmic precision and tight attack to the fore, with a central E-flat Adagio Romance of bittersweet intensity and climax. A winning account of high artistry, Håvard Lysebo excelling in the flute solos of the closing Scherzo. Le tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s First World War memorial to friends lost on the battlefields, moved on, but with some gracious turns and solo detailing, Carolina Grinne taking an oboe bow. Rouvali’s way with the Classical symphonic repertory is physical and energised, favouring speed and etched contrasts. But he can go off-piste unsettlingly. Less contentious, true, than his Beethoven last season, his view of Schubert’s ‘Little’ C-major Symphony (No.6) had plenty of drama, rattling hard-stick drums lending post-Waterloo bite to the action. The tuttis roared, the horns strode out of the Wienerwald, trumpets blazed lustily, the woodwind chorused their presence, the ‘Rossini’ moments sparkled, strong bass lines underpinned full-throated chordings. Yet changes of tempo, with accellerandos to compensate (for example the A-flat episode near the end of the Finale), didn’t always convince, tending to stagger or Mahler-ise the momentum in ways suggestive of a significantly later stylistic period. Rouvali likes to evoke cameos, and he does them well. But not every key-change or fermata justifies pictorialisation. That said, he took us on a journey undeniably uplifting and ultimately cathartic. There’s nothing quite like a voiced C-major fortissimo. “Let there be light.”