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.
Listen to Albert Schnelzer talk about his piece This Is Your Kingdom, with the american pianist Conrad Tao:
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 third 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 is one of Europe’s most versatile orchestras, with a worldwide reputation and a repertoire that combines the major classical works as well as exciting new music. In collaboration with the most important conductors, soloists and composers, there is a constant striving to break new ground. The orchestra’s extensive and high-quality music-making has been rewarded with numerous prizes and accolades and they regularly perform at international festivals and concert halls. “The orchestra has a unique combination of humility, sensibility and musical imagination”, says Daniel Harding, chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. “I have never had a concert with the orchestra where they haven’t played as though their lives depended on it!” he continues. The first radio orchestra was formed in 1925, the same year that the Swedish Radio Service began its broadcasts and since then the orchestra’s concerts have always been broadcast by the Swedish Radio. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra received its current name in 1967 and over the years has had such distinguished chief conductors as Sergiu Celibidache, Herbert Blomstedt and Esa-Pekka Salonen.