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Seen and Heard Prom Review

PROM 38: Sørensen: The Little Mermaid (world premiere), Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, Nielsen: Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, Inger Dam-Jensen, soprano, Gert Henning-Jensen, tenor, Lars Vogt, piano, Danish National Girls Choir, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 12 August, 2005 (TJH)



Bent Sørensen is rapidly establishing himself as the outstanding Danish composer of his generation, with a voice that is both distinctly modern and delicate enough on the ear to garner a popular following.  His latest work is The Little Mermaid, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, and in its world premiere at the Proms on Friday night he once again proved that his is a voice worth listening to.  A three-part girls’ choir – strategically placed on stage and amongst the Prommers – sang Andersen’s verse in earnest counterpoint and ear-pleasing canons, while the orchestra lent its support and commentary.  The Danish National Symphony Orchestra played with great sympathy, evoking the implacable lapping of waves against the shore with just a touch of menace, while Inger Dam-Jensen and Gert Henning-Jensen sang the solo soprano and tenor roles with superb confidence.  But the show was stolen by the Danish National Girls Choir, whose singing was inviting and self-assured, by turns poignant and pretty.  Conducting was Thomas Dausgaard, and he was an ideal champion for this piece: his detailed gestures and the many hours clearly spent learning the piece really paid off in a superbly executed performance.  Most contemporary composers would kill for a premiere of this calibre; Sørensen did not look disappointed when he came on stage to receive his applause.


Dausgaard’s way with Grieg’s Piano Concerto was, on the contrary, somewhat lacking in subtlety.  Though not entirely discarding the folksy charm that makes the concerto so popular, Dausgaard tended to emphasise its dramatic, echt-Romantic qualities, challenging his soloist Lars Vogt to an overblown battle of temperaments.  Unfortunately, Vogt didn’t put up much of a fight; a diffident musician at the best of times, he failed to carry off the Lisztian persona Dausgaard had thrust upon him, and one never got the sense that he was more than accompanying the action.  That said, his qualities as a recitalist and chamber musician shone through in the quieter, more reflective passages – the first movement’s melancholy Píu lento theme for example, or the rippling filigree of the Adagio, rendered in subtle Impressionist hues.  But in passages where fire and brimstone were required – and such moments are neither few nor far between in Romantic piano literature – there came only the disappointing, and often frustrating sound of restraint.


But there was no such restraint in the full-blooded account of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony which followed the interval.  From the stark, desiccated oscillations of the opening viola figure, Dausgaard turned the first movement into a rambunctious jaunt from one musical extreme to another.  The DNSO’s snare drummer – a white haired gentleman to whom one would uncomplainingly give up one’s Tube seat – raised hell in a terrifying fury, unleashing all the demons that still haunted the Europe of 1922.  Squalling woodwinds and semi-digested thematic fragments finally gave way to a long-limbed string melody, before the snare drum returned to quietly undermine a lovely clarinet solo.  In the second movement, controlled chaos reigned supreme, with an exciting fugue giving way to a radiant, heartfelt outpouring from the strings.  And although the ending seemed somehow forced, this was ultimately an effective, compelling performance of a bizarre and often difficult work.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff






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