The Scandinavians were coming: Nielsen and Grieg had tall tales to tell and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto had promised the über-virtuosic Julia Fischer. But the German never arrived, an accident in her kitchen resulting in an eleventh hour call for a replacement. That call was answered in true “local hero” fashion by the London Symphony Orchestra’s own leader Roman Simovic who entered the Nordic fray with self-evident delight that he should be doing so from the bosom of his own orchestral family. Talk about a hero’s welcome.
Simovic is nothing if not an assertive, uninhibited, presence and his reading of this most elemental of concertos was big on trenchancy and a smouldering intensity in the chest register of the instrument. It was, in a word, masculine. It was also wilfully expansive with he and his conductor Kristjan Jarvi digging deep to achieve a craggy rough-hewn character. There were a few dropped stitches, intonation straying under pressure on occasions, but also a telling awareness of his place in the orchestral texture with such details as the soulful duet with viola in the first movement achieving a strangely beautiful prominence.
For the rest of the evening we were accompanied to exotic and sometimes inhospitable climes, first Aladdin and then Peer Gynt on voyages of self-discovery underscored in a profusion of primary orchestral colourations. Nielsen’s Aladdin arrived in rowdy swaggering fashion – an “Oriental Festival March” flecked with the steely dissonances of flashing scimitars. Nielsen’s curious Asian-Nordic fusion tries hard to veer away from clichés here with some strikingly lovely colours – high violas against florid woodwinds in the “Hindu Dance”, for instance – and one audaciously Charles Ivesian collage where “The Market in Ispahan” comes to life from all corners of our hearing in a confusion of conflicting tunes and rhythms. Jarvi’s dynamics tended throughout towards the either very loud or very soft (it’s something he needs to watch) but the playing was pristine.
Extensive selections from Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt were even better though what we saw from Jarvi, with the possible exception of his troll-like dancing “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, didn’t always chime with what we heard. But the gruff folksy imitations made their mark here and there was undeniable gorgeousness in the laments and real heart in Solveig’s closing Cradle Song – Grieg at his enduring best.