Nationalism and romanticism were two of the principal, most pungent ingredients of 19th and much early 20th century music and we had big servings of both at the latest Slaithwaite Phil concert, conducted by Benjamin Ellin.
It opened with the long tone poem En Saga, by Sibelius – a composer so strongly associated with the Finnish cause and Nordic cultural identity in general. Specific folk tales inspired some of his tone poems, but En Saga seems to invite the listener to supply his or her own narrative of wizardry in the icy wastes. A sequence of folk-inspired tunes was beautifully executed by soloists and sections, including viola, bassoon, oboe, clarinet and horns. The strings too displayed real skill in the mysterious, muted passages, although the overall performance could have done with greater drama.
This was followed by the renowned violin concerto of Max Bruch, for which the soloist was Miina Järvi. This was the work in the programme that brought romanticism to the fore, because it has no folk music influences apart maybe from a Middle European melodicism. We actually got what I felt was a fairly classical performance because of the nature of the soloist, technically superb, with perfect intonation and good projection but not given to emotional extravagance.
The result was a highly poised and musical account of the work with some undoubtedly beautiful passages, especially in the slow, second movement, with the conductor ensuring that orchestra and soloist complemented each other very well.
The second half opened with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, the most folk-inspired piece on the programme, being a setting of various gypsy tunes from his home region, collected by the composer. Once again, this work provided excellent opportunities for various woodwind soloists – clarinet, oboe, flute and piccolo – and these were fully grasped.
One of the stars of the final piece – Nielson’s Symphony No 5 – was a member of the percussion team. Never, this side of Shostakovich, has a side drum seemed so insistently sinister, especially when combined with warlike horns.
This symphony was composed in the early 1920s and its tension between dread and optimism can be seen as a reaction to recent conflict and a premonition of what was to come in Europe. It is certainly a strange and ambitious piece, which also seemed musically prophetic (I am sure I heard pre-echoes of Philip Glass) and the Slaithwaite Phil, under Ellin’s direction, were well up to its considerable demands.