Saturday, June 4, 2016

Grieg and Prokofiev at Laieszhalle Hamburg

NDR Symphony Orchestra at Laieszhalle Hamburg                                           © NDR / Marcus Krüger
NDR Symphony Orchestra
Laieszhalle, Hamburg


Whether heard as background music in commercials or listened to in concert halls, the opening melody of Edvard Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt will be familiar to nearly everyone. It was actually the second time the enchanting tune had been put to good use by Grieg. An earlier piece that featured it, his Piano Concerto in A minor, was one of several interesting works on a series of programs the NDR Symphony Orchestra presented last month in the Hanseatic cites of Hamburg and Lübeck.

That magical tune of Grieg's piano concerto enters on the flute, passes to the oboe, and is eventually reprised by the entire orchestra at the climax of the movement. Creating his own magical atmosphere as he performed the work was the young Russian pianist Nikolai Tokareva. His downward cascade of massive chords and double octaves after the initial dramatic tympani roll had appeared rather austere and sober. But he soon settled in to a very tender and intimate reflectiveness, especially in the second movement Adagio, which he achieved without undue melancholy. It is the subtle deliberateness with which Tokarev created this enchanting mood that reminded one of scenic, nature-filled Norway. Most of Grieg’s compositions reflect his country’s landscape and integrate its folk music. In like manner, the music and national identities of Antonín Dvořák in Bohemia and Jean Sibelius in Finland are also intertwined.

He might not compose with ‘unfathomable profundity’ but his music touches people’s hearts because it is ‘deeply human’: With these words none other than the Russian composer Tchaikovsky  described Grieg’s character. The animated performance of Tokarev and the NDR Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Michał Nesterowicz proved that. With a profound and sensitive interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor, op. 3/2 Tokarev formed a smooth transition to the following Russian composer: Sergei Prokofiev and his Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, op. 100.

Nikolai Tokarev                                              © Felix Broede
As early as in 1945, shortly after the world premiere, Serge Koussevitzky, Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had already raved over his fellow countryman’s opus: ‘The Fifth Symphony is the greatest musical event in many, many years. The greatest since Brahms and Tchaikovsky! It is marvelous! It is yesterday, it is today, it is tomorrow.’ Koussevitzky should be proved correct – alongside his first symphony, the fifth remains the most popular of Prokofiev’s symphonies and is one of the most frequently performed symphonies of the twentieth century.

Introduced in the first movement’s theme, the  lyric melody runs like a golden thread in multiple variations through the whole symphony and revives eventually in the finale, the Allegro giocoso. The festive theme is contrasted by Prokofiev’s modern approaches with dissonant and keen harmonies. The NDR Symphony Orchestra’s performance made this ambivalence of the various layers vividly audible: The clarinetist’s buoyant way of playing when introducing the theme in the second movement. Feathery cello and viola tunes. Rhythmical provocative reversal of the leitmotif in the brass escalating in a fierce chord with the strings. – All this carved out the different faces of the composer that he attributed to himself: A classicist and modernist with a love for lyrical melodies and a distinctive fondness of the grotesque and scherzo-like rhythms.

For more information on this concert and those of May 26-29, 2016, see the website