This concert celebrates the two towering figures of Scandinavian classical music – Sibelius and Grieg. Both composers helped to carve out musical identities for their respective nations, and both produced some truly wonderful music in their lifetimes. Some of the best of this will feature in Finlandia at the Bridgewater Hall, whose programme includes Grieg’s much-loved Peer Gynt Suite as well as his commanding Piano Concerto. And as for Sibelius, the Hallé has chosen his popular Karelia Suite, The Swan of Tuonela, and – of course – Finlandia.
Edvard Grieg was one of the leading lights of the Romantic era, and the greatest composer Norway ever produced. Among his most treasured works is the Peer Gynt Suite. Composed in 1875, the suite was written for Henrik Ibsen’s drama of the same name. Of its four movements, Morning and In the Hall of the Mountain King are the most famous. The former is a serene depiction of dawn, whilst the latter is characterised by intense drama, with a mysterious refrain that gradually builds towards a frenetic climax.
The popularity of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite is equaled only by his Piano Concerto. This serious work was composed when Grieg was just 25, and was his first to employ an orchestra. The command that he displayed in his orchestral writing was nevertheless extraordinary. The thundering timpani and fearsome descending piano passage that opens the work sets the tone for the drama that unfolds over its three movements. Shining particularly brightly is the Adagio second movement – this is some of the most beautiful music that Grieg ever wrote. Performing the concerto will be the award-winning British pianist Tom Poster, described by The Herald as ‘a marvel’.
As for Sibelius, he is widely acknowledged as Finland’s greatest composer, helping Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia. To open the concert, the Hallé will play Sibelius’ ethereal The Swan of Tuonela. Scored for a small orchestra, it’s a tone poem based on the Kalevala epic of Finnish mythology. It features the cor anglais as the voice of a mystical swan who floats through Tuonela, the realm of the dead. The instrument’s hauntingly beautiful solo is one of the most well-known in all of its repertoire.
This is joined by the Karelia Suite. One of the Finnish composer’s earlier works, it’s a trio of musical pictures which evoke Karelia, a beautiful wilderness in the south-east of Finland. Its patriotism is matched only by Finlandia, Sibelius’ stirring tribute to his homeland. This tone poem was a contribution towards a covert protest against increasing censorship from the Russian Empire. The tense, ominous mood conjured by the brass and timpani at the onset gradually leads to one that is bright and festive – the sound of Sibelius revelling in Finland’s fighting spirit. Closing this concert, Finlandia tops off a wonderful programme at the Bridgewater Hall.