Proms 2013 and the invasion of the Nords

- 26 July 2013

The Nords are coming, and the 2013 Proms season is welcoming the invasion with open arms. Andrew Mellor looks at what we can expect

First choice: Camerata Nordica gives a Britten world premiere on 28 August

First choice: Camerata Nordica gives a Britten world premiere on 28 August

The biggest Nordic outfit visiting this year’s Proms is the Oslo Philharmonic with its not-quite chief conductor Vasily Petrenko. He officially takes over at the first concert in the 2013/14 season a few weeks later but it’s fair to say that the orchestra-conductor partnership is already bedding-in nicely. In February they gave two electrifying concerts together in Oslo (involving Baiba Skride playing both of Szymanowski’s violin concertos) which proved heart-warming opportunities to see an orchestra rediscovering its verve. ‘He really makes them play, doesn’t he,’ the stranger next to me shouted in my ear as Petrenko accepted a prolonged standing ovation. Well yes, he does. Expect plenty of earth and fire in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and a knowing performance of Szymanowski’s first concerto from Skride on 2 September.

Bruckner’s fourth symphony the next day is admittedly a more risky proposition, but not so its precursor: BBC New Generation Artist Christian Ihle Hadland, also from Norway, playing Beethoven’s second piano concerto. Hadland is a pianist with a beautiful and humble touch who can teach us more about a composer than he will dazzle us with virtuosity. Chamber ensembles cherish him for his propensity to share rather than hog and for his rare dynamic range. He performs Maconchy and Brahms with the Signum Quartet on 26 August as part of the Proms Chamber Music series at Cadogan Hall.

Hadland’s compatriot Tine Thing Helseth also makes two appearances this season and if the trumpeter has not invaded your consciousness yet don’t be fooled by her innocent smile and glitzy record deal: she is an artist of rare communicative abilities who is firmly drilled in that old Scandinavian principle of never forgetting that the composer is the biggest person in the room. Her brass ensemble tenThing plays a Grieg-centred programme at Cadogan Hall on 5 August and Helseth herself joins fellow trumpeter Marco Blaauw for the London premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s explosive new concerto Chute d’étoiles on 18 August with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pintscher himself.

The best Proms usually come courtesy of ensembles new to the whole affair ‒ to the shouts of the Prommers and the distinct atmosphere of the live audience/broadcast combo. So watch out for the Norrbotten Big Band from Sweden on 28 August, paying homage to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker in collaboration with pianist Django Bates and his trio Belovèd. Over at Cadogan Hall another Swedish ensemble makes its Proms debut boldly offering an all-British menu including a world premiere: Camerata Nordica from Oskarshamn plays the 14-year-old Britten’s Elegy for Strings, said by Colin Matthews to ‘anticipate Strauss’s Metamorphosen by 17 years.’

Despite the absence of any female ones, it’s a big year for Nordic conductors at the Proms as Sakari Oramo opens the festival in what is, by my reckoning, only his third appearance with a London orchestra. After the first of those, in 2012, the Finn was named as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor designate. I thought that a distinctly mediocre concert of which the highlight was not Oramo’s Sibelius but his Bax. It is good to see him cutting the 2013 Proms ribbon in a concert which pays no heed to his nationality but instead focuses on Britten and Lutosławski. He returns for Elgar’s Enigma Variations on 21 August which judging by his new recording of that composer’s second symphony could well be a tour de force.

Other Finns include Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Eötvös and Bruckner with his Philharmonia Orchestra on 29 August and Proms favourite Osmo Vänskä returning with the BBCSO and Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony on 4 September. But it is the newer generation of Nordic conductors that presents the most tantalising prospects. Thomas Søndergård from Denmark conducts his first Prom as boss of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on 18 July in one of the festival’s most mouth-watering programmes (Stenhammar, Szymanowski, Strauss) and he is back nine days later with Colin Matthews, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Søndergård’s conducting is marked out by its forceful drive and an emphasis on texture and the BBCNOW has reportedly revelled in its first season under his gregarious leadership.

Then, of course, there is John Storgårds. I promise to stop banging on about this Finnish conductor the day he presides over a concert that’s anything less than exceptional, which so far ‒ in London, Tampere and Helsinki ‒ I haven’t seen him do. Storgårds has a singular ability to determine and then communicate the expressive nuances and shifts of a particular piece so that you are left in no doubt what he believes the music means. A no-nonsense conductor, he coaxes very physical performances from orchestras which makes him a good fit with the BBC Philharmonic. They perform music by Storgårds’ beloved Korngold as well as Walton’s Orb and Sceptre march on 6 August.

Joining them is an artist of immense significance given her tender years: Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang plays the Bruch first violin concerto and I’d bet my mortgage it will not sound much like you’ve heard it before. Frang’s Jurowski-like ability to rebirth great works with bite, clarity and a total shunning of the nostalgic is fast making her one of the most vital artists around, Nordic or not. She also makes an appearance in the chamber music series ‒ on her own, and with her regular recital partner pianist Michail Lifits ‒ on 15 July. As with nearly all those artists mentioned, expect some Nordic ideals you just can’t teach: straightforwardness, emotional honesty, technical discipline and a tendency to realise that needless showmanship is usually synonymous with bad taste ‒ in performance as in life.

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