Bergen Phil/Gardner/Ólafsson review – crowd-pleasing but never dangerous

·2 min read

Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances are often programmed together; it’s not simply that the two works share a dance theme but on a deeper level the way in which both pieces evoke a vanished world in which they find common ground. It was with these works that the Bergen Philharmonic and chief conductor Edward Gardner rounded off their visit to Edinburgh, following their concert performance of Strauss’s Salome.

In keeping with the general crowd-pleasing tenor of the programme the concert also featured pianist of the moment Víkingur Ólafsson who joined the orchestra in Schumann’s Piano Concerto with mixed success. Ólafsson’s limpid, free-flowing playing didn’t quite gel with the orchestral playing; the accompaniment feeling tentative rather than genuinely connected. The delicate, bell-like sonorities Ólafsson drew from the piano were exquisite but at times a more extrovert approach would have been welcomed to create a genuine dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

The orchestra certainly felt more comfortable in the rest of the programme, yet throughout there was a certain element of constraint. In Ravel’s La Valse, famously described by the impresario Diaghilev as “not a ballet, but the portrait of a ballet”, theme emerges from a swirling mist, as if a spectral Viennese ballroom is being conjured in the concert hall. It is decadent and yet also grotesque; here the superficial glamour was rather more apparent than the latent menace.

There was a similar sense of control not being relinquished in a generally excellent performance of Rachmaninov’s valedictory Symphonic Dances. There was plenty to admire: the disciplined, tightly controlled energy of Gardner’s reading; the warm, rich orchestral tone and some superb woodwind solos; but there was never the sense of being taken on an edge-of-the-seat ride. This was particularly apparent in the final movement where Rachmaninov hammers out the chant for the dead “Dies Irae” over a multitude of musical self-quotations, a real dance of death if ever there was one. This performance was exciting but never dangerous.