Presenting Grieg with a freshness and grandeur

Hadland brings new take on Norway’s greatest piano concerto

The old saw has it that performances on period instruments are like cleaning the varnish off the work of an old master and showing the true colours for the first time in centuries.

As a generalisation, it doesn’t stand up. But the effect – hearing something familiar in a way that seems utterly new – is a fact of life, and it is not restricted to any particular kind of instrument or ideology.

It’s tempting to think that Christian Ihle Hadland’s way with the Grieg Piano Concerto at the NCH last Wednesday was special because he’s Norwegian, and was playing Norway’s greatest piano concerto with a Norwegian orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic. But I suspect it is that Hadland’s view of the work is, well, special. It was as if he’d decided to dispense with all bluster, to express sentiment without getting sentimental, and to give the ultimate treat of presenting a familiar work with such freshness that it was easy to imagine you might never have heard it properly before.

Hadland’s was one of the mildest, gentlest accounts of the work that I’ve ever heard, though it wasn’t by any means shy of grandeur when it was needed. And it was at all times sensitively accompanied by the orchestra’s new principal conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Utterly compelling.


Petrenko's opening performance of Sibelius's Finlandia was a little unsettled, everything not aligned with the necessary accuracy. But his handling of Tchaikovsky's First Symphony, Winter Dreams, was a real pleasure: atmospheric, strongly characterised, and delving below the surface so that bits of background that other conductors treat as secondary didn't sound secondary at all. The orchestra sounded on splendid form.

Brophy's successor
On Thursday, RTÉ announced that John Wilson, currently principal guest conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and a man who surrounds himself with a real buzz, is to succeed David Brophy as the orchestra's principal conductor from next January.

The announcement was timed for the day of Wilson's Essential Classics programme with the orchestra — Dvorak's Carnival Overture, Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice, Lehár's Count of Luxembourg Waltzes (stretching the meaning of essential a little too far, surely), and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

The Dvorak was racy and exciting, but with the kish-boom a bit too prominent for my taste, an inevitable risk when the piece is played with the small string section available to the RTÉCO. Wilson handled the Emperor Concerto with discipline and reserve.

Unfortunately, the evening's soloist, Danny Driver, was no better than dully efficient. I didn't manage to stay for the second half, as I had to get home and pack for a red-eye flight to Bucharest for a first visit to the Enescu Festival.

A Mega event
The Enescu Festival is a mega-event, with the kind of line-up to make any Irish music-lover green with envy. It runs for 28 days, and encompasses more than 90 events.

The month's offerings include a complete concert performance of Wagner's Ring from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski, a stream of leading international orchestras (including the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, the London, Munich, and Royal Stockholm Philharmonics), early music ensembles (Europa Galante, La Venexiana, Armonia Atenea, Hesperion XXI, Accademia Bizantina), and a line-up of soloists that includes Yuja Wang, Radu Lupu, Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Spivakov, Pinchas Zukerman, Rudolf Buchbinder, Christian Zacharias, Emanuel Ax, Evgeny Kissin, Stephen Hough, Maxim Vengerov, Julian Rachlin, Hilary Hahn, Vadim Repin, and Murray Perahia. The national opera company is contributing Verdi's Otello and Enescu's Oedipe. The programme book alone would take anyone a number of sittings to absorb.

My first thought was how do they do it? Ireland has a bigger economy than Romania and a smaller population, though obviously the higher cost of living here has an impact on what money can purchase. The festival’s budget is 35 million Romanian Lei or €7.84 million, around half of which is government supplied, the rest coming from ticket sales and sponsorship. I guess it’s all a matter of where culture comes in the list of national priorities.

I spent three days at the festival, and got to events at the National Opera and the main concert halls. My seat for Otello was very near the front and at a side wall. But it turned out well. It felt as if I were in some kind of sound-trap, with everything – voices, individual and choral, and the orchestra too – thrillingly immediate, every last glow of tone and wisp of resonance sounding as if they had been shaped specially for me. The leads, Marius Vlad Budoiu as Otello and Nicoleta Ardelean as Desdemona, were both strong, and Kery-Lynn Wilson conducted with real thrust. Vera Nemirova's production busied itself with too many points from too many directions, as if showing off how many extra references could be laid one on top of the other.

A mammoth cantata
Schoenberg's mammoth late-romantic cantata Gurrelieder was given in the vast space of the Sala Palatului, a 1960 concert hall cum conference centre with a capacity of more than 4,000. The George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra under Bertrand de Billy lacked something in luxuriance and warmth, but the main soloists, soprano Violeta Urmana and tenor Nikolai Schukoff, were superb, Schukoff's commanding Heldentenor manner fielding all the music's fearsome demands with impressive ease.

It would be rather remiss to attend an Enescu festival and not hear any of Enescu’s works. My time in Bucharest didn’t coincide with any of this year’s large-scale Enescu offerings, but I did hear his Second Piano Quartet played by the Tammuz Quartet in the Ataneul Român, a gorgeously ornate, late 19th-century concert hall, with a circular design by the French architect Albert Galleron and one of the most visually appealing foyers I’ve ever come across.

The Tammuz’s playing of Enescu was as understated as you could imagine, a four-way conversation in which you wanted to follow every part but were regularly being distracted by one of the other ones.

There was a contemporary music strand over the weekend, too, with the standout performances coming from the Minguet Quartet (in the small hall of the Sala Palatului) with soprano Sarah Maria Sun joining the Minguets to produce spectacular, white high notes in Peter Ruzicka's Erinnerung und vergessen, and the Irish Chamber Orchestra's ubiquitous artistic partner, clarinettist Jörg Widmann, joining them for the 21st-century romanticism of Wolfgang Rihm's 4 Studien zu einem Klarinettenquintett.

The festival continues until September 28th. Check it out at