Alfvén, Sibelius & Schnelzer
Writing for the piano is in itself nothing new for the curious and highly topical Alfred Schnelzer. But it is the first time that he tackles a regular Piano Concerto, and the task of writing it directly for the talented and skilled pianist, Conrad Tao, probably also had its appeal. Hugo Alfvén and Jean Sibelius contribute with one symphonic gem each: Alfvén’s enchanting ballet music from Bergakungen as well as Sibelius’s bold and innovative Symphony No. 1.
This concert is dedicated to three composers who are, or have been, innovative artists, in their respective periods. Alfred Schnelzer, with his frequently pioneering expressions, in the small format as well as in larger orchestral works and in opera, has achieved significant standing among our contemporary composers. But he had not yet tackled a Piano Concerto when the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which had previously performed his Tales from Surburbia, commissioned a new work, he says. But in that moment, he realized the time had come. And the fact that the remarkably talented, 25-year-old, American pianist Conrad Tao had agreed to premièring the piece settled the matter. The fact that Tao is such a deeply contemplative musician and composer, was a strong source of inspiration for Schnelzer, especially in relation to the flow of ideas during the initial composition process.
Conrad Tao, performing at Berwaldhallen for the second time this season, is an unusually multi-talented musician whose focus is on the piece, the overall picture, rather than on virtuosity and individual technicalities. Weary of the prodigy moniker, he has developed an artistry entirely in his own right; he sees technical skill only as a means to tell the story that he wants to convey. Tao is also a successful composer himself.
Jean Sibelius was 34 years old in 1899 when he completed his Symphony No. 1, which was received with much delight during a politically charged period in Finland. Sibelius did not choose paths that were already well travelled, even if some affinity with Tchaikovsky and Bruckner has been mentioned. But above all, Sibelius was celebrated, in Finland and beyond, for his innovative music, and even in the first movement, he displays his boldness when he lets a clarinet, fateful and lonely, twist and turn for a minute and a half above muffled kettledrums.
The concert opens with Hugo Alfvén’s music to the pantomime ballet, Bergakungen (The Mountain King), with libretto and stage design by John Bauer, which had a mixed reception at its première in 1923. The Svenska Dagbladet broadsheet talked about a composer who “again asserted his position”, while Wilhelm Peterson-Berger in the other broadsheet, Dagens Nyheter, completely lambasted Alfvén. “The only value is possibly in the visual elements”, he argues and continues: “The music is only a participant, with a large number of notes to be sure, but those are not chosen in such a consistent and organic manner as to achieve a work of art with compelling conceptual context and great inner beauty, alas.” However, time has vanquished the surly criticism and today, the orchestral suite from Bergakungen is considered one of Alfvén’s masterpieces.
Text: Jenny Leonardz
The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra serves as a symphony orchestra for the whole of Sweden. Regardless of where you live you can listen to the orchestra’s concerts through the Swedish Radio’s broadcasts or on their website, and several concerts are also shown on Swedish Television. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is one of the best and most versatile orchestras in Europe – perhaps even in the world. Every year they perform well-loved works from the classical repertoire as well as new music by exciting contemporary composers such as Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Magnus Lindberg and Unsuk Chin. In addition they perform music from popular films and computer and video games and collaborate with leading jazz, pop and rock artists in a constant endeavour to develop and to break new ground.