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PROMS 2002

PROM 14: Sibelius, Mozart, Nielsen, Stephen Hough (pf), BBC Scottish SO / Osmo Vänskä, RAH, 29th July 2002 (SD)

Monday night's concert marked Osmo Vänskä's final appearance as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish SO after six highly successful years, and the Albert Hall was packed out to hear him conduct an appropriately Nordic programme, including Nielsen's Fourth, and most popular, Symphony and Sibelius's well-loved late symphonic poem ‘Tapiola’. With the BBCSSO on superb form, Vänskä's work in Minnesota will be eagerly anticipated.

‘Tapiola’, Sibelius's last major composition, spans 20 minutes but is built on a single, simple theme which lends itself perfectly to multiple transformations. From the first bar Vänskä directed a wonderfully spacious yet highly disciplined performance. After the expansive, almost languid beginning, brass salvos and relentless string pizzicatos winched up the tension magnificently, and the piece progressed as a perfectly organic whole.

Equally organic in its through-composed structure, Nielsen's Fourth Symphony (1914-16) depicts 'the elemental will of life' and contains much of the energy and zest of the composer's Third Symphony. But it also reflects Nielsen's growing uncertainty about his cherished idea of nation, as well as the more personal crisis of separation from his wife, and the struggle between the life force and other, darker forces continues right up to the work's triumphant ending. Some critics have found the continual stylistic contrasts too blatant, and it is a difficult work to bring off. But tonight's thrillingly convincing performance was a triumph for Vänskä and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, whose youthful verve and freshness of response belied the immense discipline of their playing.

Nordic wastes gave way to the Viennese salon for the middle work, Mozart's A major Piano Concerto, K488 - for many his most perfect example of the genre. Yet this elegant work, too, is shot through with pathos, and the juxtaposition of light and shade. Seasoned Mozartian Stephen Hough gave a masterful account, his crystal-clear articulation and sensitivity to the shape of each phrase coupled with a cantabile that few can match. The orchestra's lush, full-bodied accompaniment paid particularly close attention to orchestral colours and textures. If Hough played the Allegro absolutely straight, his own zany, yet rather refreshing cadenza was anything but. His sublimely poetic line in the Adagio, answered by a melting clarinet line was rounded off by a surprisingly punchy, extrovert finale.

Sarah Dunlop

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