BSO's "Sibelius/Elgar/Nielsen": Cradle of the Vikings

Cellist Truls Mork
(photo: BSO)

The Boston Symphony program Friday afternoon (to be repeated Saturday evening) proudly displayed its Nordic roots in two thirds of the choices. Conducted by Russian-born Dima Slobodeniouk with solo work by Cellist Truls Mork, it consisted of three works: Pohjola's Daughter Symphonic Fantasy Opus 49 by Jean Sibelius, Cello concerto in E Minor, Opus 85 by Sir Edward Elgar, and Symphony No.5, Opus 50 by Carl Nielsen. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) all three pieces were composed in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Sibelius' tone poem debuted in St. Petersburg in 1906 under the Finnish composer's baton, and was subsequently first performed in America in 1914 in Norfolk, Connecticut; its BSO debut soon followed, in 1917. inspired by the Finnish national epic Kalevala, it is described in the BSO program as a “conflation” of folk tales from Finland, lyrics, narrative and magic changes. In the story, the hero Vainamoinen attempts to win the hand of the “maiden of the North Farm”. To do so, he must accomplish some rather strange challenges including cleaving a swan with a dull knife, knotting an egg with knots that are invisible, pulling bark from a stone, breaking poles from ice, and finally building a boat using only splinters from the maiden's spindle. As with his other works, the composer starts slowly with a variety of motifs, ultimately leading to musical climaxes that suggest the Nordic topography. The orchestra was in fine form, especially near the end with a strong string sound (basses, then cellos, finally violas), then pianissimo with muted strings. One could easily see the “cradle of the Vikings” informing it.

Cello concerto in E Minor, Opus 85 by Elgar is, on the other hand, more about creating an atmosphere rather than storytelling. Considered this British composer's masterpiece, it is regarded as one of the central works for the cello in the musical world. Completed in 1919, it was first performed, under the composer's direction, by the London Symphony. When his beloved wife died soon after, his productivity eroded and he more or less disappeared into despair and melancholy. This piece boasts four rather than the typical three movements, with an overall impression of a bare and somewhat bleak period. It was first performed in this country in 1934, though it was not presented by the BSO until 1955. Its most recent appearance on the BSO schedule was in 2016. This rendering was wondrous, with Mork's familiarity with this work a definite plus.

Symphony No.5 with just two movements, by Nielsen, Denmark's greatest symphonist, was first heard in 1922, and last played in this country in 1993. With a heavy influence by Beethoven, eschewing sentimentality, it remains one of the few examples of this composer's ouevre that is well known outside his own country. A friend of Sibelius, he never quite matched his popularity on the world concert stage. The BSO, especially in the playing of the fugue that dominates the finale, was exemplary, ensuring we probably won't have to wait too long to hear this piece again, since (though it was a relatively unknown choice on the program), it was the unexpected high point.

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