Although last year was properly ‘Nielsen year’ (being 150 years since his birth), the Philharmonia Orchestra opted to continue the celebrations with a Nielsen double bill on Thursday night at The Festival Hall: his 1928 clarinet concerto (written three years before the composer’s death) and his third symphony, Sinfonia espansiva; to prevent the evening becoming too northern European, the programme began with one of Haydn’s 1788 Paris symphonies, number 83, The Hen.
Alas, it should first be mentioned that these were not the only items of music playing during the concert; the Festival Hall is currently running a particularly noisy installation downstairs, and sounds of this bled into the concert hall throughout the evening making for less-than-silent quiet moments, and creating some annoying dissonances.
Haydn’s 83rd symphony (nicknamed The Hen because of the ‘pecking’ theme in the first movement) received a no-nonsense but intelligent performance. It was a pleasure to hear Haydn being played by a modern orchestra, with its more lush string tone, as his works now seem to be more and more the preserve of original-instrument ensembles. By all accounts, though, the original Paris performance included forty violins and ten double basses (six more than present in Thursday’s performance), so perhaps a more generous stageful was appropriate after all.
The Haydn provided an undemanding counterweight to Nielsen’s challenging clarinet concerto. It was written for, and to suit the personality of, the moody and irascible Aage Oxenvad, and Mark van de Wiel, Thursday night’s soloist, wrung every last scintilla of quirkiness and discomfort out of the work, bracing his body for the virtuoso runs required of the soloist, and tackling both of the demanding cadenzas with verve and consummate skill. The orchestra, under Paavo Järvi (who are midway through a highly acclaimed Nielsen cycle) clearly knew the territory well, and turned in an equally bracing performance. Nielsen’s fifth symphony features a snare drum, and the instruction to the player is to sound as though it is disrupting the piece; the drum returns to demand attention in the clarinet concerto as almost a second soloist, and plaudits must also go to Matt Prendergast, who coaxed a suitably petulant tone out of his instrument.
The third work in the programme might have been the strange love child of Haydn’s elegant measured symphony and Nielsen’s mercurial concerto. Nielsen’s third symphony is, in many ways, a neo-classical re-iteration of Beethoven’s sixth symphony: it is beautifully pastoral in nature – the second movement, particularly (which features a soprano and a baritone singing long wordless legato phrases) feels like an encapsulation of a long sunny day – although the more perturbed third movement also gives hints of the same storm that featured in Beethoven’s earlier piece, and, in spite of its pastoral quality, the symphony has an edgy feel throughout, reminding us that there has been an industrial revolution since Beethoven’s bucolic musings. Echoing the symphony’s soubriquet, Järvi’s gestures were themselves expansive – he is a conductor who makes full use of the space around him – and the orchestra responded perfectly, presenting wonderful warm string passages, enchantingly twittering woodwind birdsong, and powerful brass counterpoint; Lucy Knight and Stephen Kennedy provided just the right degree of otherworldly singing in the slow movement. The brass section was particularly fine in the last movement, in which Beethoven gives way to Dvořak, as Nielsen employs a solid peasant-like tune (inspiring a dancing foot-stamp from Järvi) to provide his finale.