Diverse Soundscapes – Segerstam and Kringelborn with the NZSO

SIBELIUS – Luonnotar, for soprano and orchestra

GRIEG – Songs


BRAHMS – Symphony No.4 in E Minor

Leif Segerstam (conductor)

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Friday 13th November 2009

It was hard to know what to make of this programme as an assemblage of music – I thought of it as a concert of two diverse halves, the first an exploration of cool, bracing sounds and ambiences from both the planet’s hemispheres, and the second an exposition of one of the greatest of all romantic symphonies. I would have preferred to have heard Leif Segerstam conduct more Scandinavian or perhaps some Russian music, following his and the orchestra’s magically-wrought first-half evocations of music associated with Arctic and Antarctic regions. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in how he would approach a work from the standard Central European symphonic repertoire. But, interesting though the Brahms Fourth Symphony performance was, I would have thought a major symphonic work from Northern Europe (Nielsen comes immediately to mind, though there are any number of works by other fine symphonists from this part of the world) might have been considered a more appropriate companion for music by Sibelius and Grieg, along with Chris Cree Brown’s impressive tone-poem “Icescape”. I remembered the remark “Segerstam is a wild man!” made by Pietari Inkinen during a pre-concert discussion forum at the beginning of the NZSO’s Sibelius symphonies series, and wanted to hear him apply that wild spirit to more music that breathes the same fresh, tingling and rarified air.

Still, in an imperfect world I was content with hearing Luonnotar, Sibelius’s utterly magical evocation of the Finnish creation myth, made all the more mysterious and ritualistic by the use of the composer’s native language, here engagingly delivered by Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn. Her clear, communicative tones and detailed diction helped bring a powerful sense of storytelling to the work (wrongly described as a “song-cycle” in the pre-concert publicity – Luonnotar is actually a fully-fledged stand-alone extended orchestral song). At the beginning, the singer survived a slight “tickle” on one of her opening notes, going on to capture all of the brooding, mystical power of both words and music. Segerstam and the orchestra, for their part, provided her with a stunning evocation of timeless creative impulse, a real sense of something being wrought from nothing – now still and brooding, now urgent and restless, now elemental and declamatory. It was a marvellous performance, and a perfect fillip to the earlier Sibelius festival series – would that we had more directed by Segerstam in this vein (the incidental music to “The Tempest”, for example…)

More did follow, but not from Sibelius – instead, Christchurch composer Chris Cree Brown’s “Icescape” tellingly kept our listening temperatures firmly in single figures with some gloriously rugged orchestral sounds – rasping string timbres and bird-like cries from winds, accompanied by primordial glissandi from the brass and crystalline touches from percussion. Elemental blocks of sound from different orchestral sections contrasted tellingly with both a volatile dancing element and episodes of great stillness, the sostenutos readily suggesting the icy wastes of the Antarctic continent. It was a work where timbral differentiation was as crucial to the argument as was rhythm and dynamics, with some amazing, ear-tingling sounds resounding in the memory at the music’s conclusion.

I wondered whether the bracket of Grieg songs coming after such austerities would merely serve to underline Debussy’s dismissive “pink bonbons stuffed with snow” remark regarding the Norwegian composer’s music. I needn’t have worried – Grieg’s uniquely piquant and richly unsentimental harmonic language (greatly admired by both Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger) is heard to its most telling advantage in his songs, striking even in oft-heard pieces like “Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt, and the well-known “Last Spring” (one of two songs that the composer arranged for string orchestra, but vastly preferable in its original form). Singer, conductor and players made this music their own, with many magical touches, the soprano’s affecting “world-weary” tones in Solveig’s Song, the orchestra’s heartfelt phrasing of the strings-only passages of “Last Spring”, and the astringency of the strings-and-wind textures in the Mahlerian “En Svane” (A Swan) which concluded the first half. Only in the more declamatory passages of “From Mount Pincio” did I feel that the singer lacked the tonal reserves to fully “command” the vocal line, though again she shone in the work’s more ruminative, sensitively-breathed passages, and generally won our hearts.

Segerstam propelled the Brahms symphony on its way with little fuss and no intrusive exaggerations – everything was sweet-toned and unhurried, rather small in scale, but with nothing pushed or “hefted up” unnaturally. My notes make ready references to gorgeous orchestral playing from all departments, the whole creating a lovely autumnal atmosphere, with one or two touches suggesting the occasional ‘edge of the abyss” realisation, without drawing undue attention from the shape of the whole. I thought the opening of the slow movement was beautifully done (though it’s music that always gives me goosebumps!), pizziccato strings and winds enjoying the music’s equivocations of regret and resignation that colours whole episodes of this movement. The NZSO strings didn’t disappoint at the reprise of the big, Brucknerian tune, here gloriously rich and deep-toned, while the horns made a suitably baleful impression just before the movement’s close. I enjoyed the timpani’s prominent voicings during the rumbustious scherzo, with the horns this time warm and sonorous in the middle trio section.

Throughout the symphony a section of the audience had been applauding at the conclusion of each movement (unusual for a Wellington audience), and matters came to a head when the applause after the Scherzo interrupted the conductor’s attempt at an “attacca” with the final movement – Segerstam turned to the audience and pointedly extended four fingers, one after the other, to the amusement (or bemusement) of all concerned. Despite the finale’s big-boned opening, which splendidly carried us through the first gaunt utterances of the Passacaglia theme, I didn’t feel that Segerstam consistently picked up the music’s underlying forward thrust after some of the more lyrical episodes – the result was that the tension sagged towards the end, and the last few pages for me didn’t have that “screwed-up-tightly” quality that surely the whole movement is inexorably moving towards. And the conductor’s agogic pause inserted before the final chord seemed more self-indulgent than logical and organic, in this, the most “connected” of all romantic symphonies.

For me, however, all of this was of little moment – the concert’s first part alone had reaped such ample rewards, I felt richly repaid, and grateful that I had been given the chance to experience Pietari Inkinen’s “wild man” at work with repertoire he knows and loves – even if it was only half-a-concert’s worth!

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