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Seen and Heard International Concert Review
Helsinki Festival Midori (violin), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor Alan Gilbert, Finlandia Hall, Helsinki 2nd September 2004 (BK)
Anders Hillborg, Exquisite
Corpse (2002, revised 2003)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, ‘The Romantic.’
Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s fantasia, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ takes its peculiar name from a parlour game played by 1920s Surrealists. A group of people created a poem or prose text by writing a phrase or word on a piece of paper, folding the paper so that the next contributor could not see what had been written before, and passed it on. Rules were needed to ensure that grammatical sense was maintained and participants were instructed to contribute a noun, verb, adjective or adverb as the paper passed round the group. The idea was to tap into the unconscious minds of the participants to produce new psychological truths and the process was called ‘mental contagion’ by the artist Max Ernst.
One early experiment with this parlour game produced the phrase, Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau - ‘The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine’ – and it is to this experiment that Hillborg pays homage in his piece. He created the work single-handedly by imagining what music a group of people might make by mixing his own contributions with key quotations from other composers. Since Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony was being performed at the concert where the new work received its premiere, Hillborg included a reference to this towards the end of the work, ‘because it seemed….a nice idea to send (the exquisite corpse of) Sibelius a greeting, as well as connecting the past and the present for the audience.’ (Hillborg is noted for the humour that runs through many of his works.)
The piece is for a large orchestra consisting of triple woodwind including piccolos, cor anglais, bass and contra-bass clarinets plus contra-bassoon. The brass features an ophicleide as well as the usual line-up and there is a huge percussion section as well as strings, harp and piano.
The music has a very quiet opening, progressing with fluctuating tempos, metres and dynamics, with the strings and woodwinds often sub-divided. Each orchestral section gets is emphasised, alternating with tutti passages, and there are spots for individual instruments, often in rapid succession. After the quite beginning, trumpets play a seven-note motif that leading to rapid passage work in the strings, upon which the whole orchestra elaborates. About two thirds of the way through, the flutes, clarinets and bassoons have a series of brief trios and duos which lead to an extended section for the full orchestra with a good deal of percussion. The work finishes with molto cantabile final pages and a quiet ending for piano and strings.
‘Exquisite Corpse’ is a very satisfying piece that whets the appetite for more of Hillborg’s work. It has the added interest too of spotting the stylistic allusions contained in it – there’s certainly Ligeti and Stravinsky in there somewhere as well as the quotation from Sibelius 7, but I thought I detected Bartòk and even Copland at one point.
It’s a tradition to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto at some time during every Helsinki Festival and past performers have included Oistrakh, Menuhin, Stern, Kremer and Kavakos. This year the honour went to Midori, the Japanese former child-prodigy who was invited by Zubin Mehta to play in a New York Philharmonic Orchestra New Year’s Eve concert when she was only eleven. Midori plays an ‘ex Huberman’ Guarnerius del Gesu instrument from 1734 which is on life-long loan to her from the Hayashibara Foundation.
This should have been a memorable performance given Midori’s accumulated experience as a concert violinist and the quality of her violin. Unfortunately it wasn’t (at least for me) since there were times when the instrument was barely audible. In part this was due to Finlandia Hall’s notoriously tricky acoustic: localised dead spots in the auditorium effectively kill particular frequencies and upset the orchestral balance. It was my bad luck to be sitting in one.
The consequence of this was the concerto performance came across as one of the least involving I can remember, since the violin sound was often lost inside the weighty textures of Sibelius’ scoring. This was particularly noticeable during the first movement where even the famous cadenza was difficult to hear clearly, a particular pity since it is so important structurally to the movement. Despite some fine lyrical playing in the second movement and some firecracker virtuosity in the finale, the concerto as a whole failed to convey its customary impact, even with Midori stamping her feet loudly to emphasise its rhythms here and there.
Alan Gilbert has an economical but effective conducting technique. He is now in his fifth season as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Adviser and it is obvious that there is a great sense of mutual respect between him and his players. This autumn he also takes on the position of Principal Guest Conductor with the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg, which if memory serves me right, had the sadly deceased but great Brucknerian, Günter Wand as its Music Director for many years. The choice of Bruckner’s fourth symphony as the finale to this concert seemed particularly appropriate in this context.
Notwithstanding the acoustic challenges just mentioned, this was a gripping performance of the Nowak edition of the symphony. The first movement opened atmospherically and the horn call of the movement's principal theme was played particularly beautifully. The music having developed inexorably into a massive tutti, the fine lyrical music for woodwinds and strings that follows was a particularly effective contrast. The coda with its huge sonorities was thrilling.
There were no low points at all. The andante’s cello cantilena and the violin postlude were also played skilfully with careful attention to melody and phrasing. The hunting horn scherzo was strong and rhythmically secure, and once more balanced by the immense calm of the trio. The finale was appropriately epic and brought a standing ovation from the audience. All in all, this was an excellent concert from a fine orchestra. It was simply unfortunate that the concerto suffered so badly.
Comparison Recording: Bruckner, Symphony No.4 in E flat major, ‘Romantic’ Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by George Tintner Naxos 8.554128