Odd to reflect, sitting in the appropriately cavernous Emirates Palace auditorium on Friday for Adach's Scandinavian Landscapes concert, that Edvard Grieg said he didn't care much for In the Hall of the Mountain King. The great chase theme for Ibsen's theatrical epic Peer Gynt undoubtedly ranks among the composer's three immortal melodies, along with the opening to Concerto in A Minor and the swelling, voluptuous Morning Mood from the same play.
That makes it a shoe-in for a spot in the top 50 or so most popular classics of all time. Yet in his own words, the piece was: "Something that I literally can't bear listening to? it absolutely reeks of cow-dung, exaggerated Norwegian nationalism, and trollish self-satisfaction!" he said, not without a touch of smugness of his own: "I have a hunch that the irony will be discernible." Well, so it proved. With its sneaking, corpulent bassoons and helter-skelter shrieks from the flutes and strings, the piece has become the musical archetype for comic terror, endlessly cribbed by filmmakers and advertisers and somehow undiminished by the exposure. Only Morning Mood can claim a greater degree of overuse, and even it retains a good deal of the freshness it was written to evoke.
As befits theatre music, this stuff is hardly subtle - but it does the job superbly. The same could be said, without the caveat, for Finland's Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra. They're a student outfit, a fact touchingly highlighted by the presence of Ron Weasley-style pageboy haircuts on some of the chaps, gaily coloured satin gowns on the women, and fresh faces all round. Yet under the direction of Jukka-Pekka Saraste, they played with immense discipline and aplomb throughout the evening, lending the closing chords of Grieg's Death of Åse the softness of a fading breath, and spinning into the mazurka of Anitra's Dance with great precision, if not quite the abandon the piece calls out for.
More impressive was their tonal command throughout the Six Humoresques of Jean Sibelius. Norway's Henning Kraggerud was the satisfyingly wild soloist, wrenching his violin through the hairpin bends and blindingly quick runs with hairy recklessness, and pulling great hurdy-gurdy drones and jigs from his instrument during the folksy No 3. All the while, the orchestra's strings resolved into a shimmering mist, or fretted and paced through the anxious, Michael Nyman-like needling of No 6. Sibelius pictured these pieces as hovering between "existential agony and rays of sun", and that seems almost right, though it misses their faerie strangeness - the way they send dark clouds scudding across a silver sky and then speed you into the heavens on the mosquito wings of a violin. Everything is at once bright and looming, capricious and inexorable. These are wonderfully treacherous pieces, negotiated here with careless panache.
The grandest stuff was saved for last, though. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is, frankly, a frightening work, and not only for the demands it makes on the bowing arms of the string section. It sounds like the inside of a manic depressive's bad conscience: an exhausting cycle of bombastic crescendoes that peel sickeningly away into ambivalence, plunge into black doubt, and return again with still more desperate zeal.
Skipping melodies warp and dance across the orchestra and are blasted aside by yet another freight train of angst. There are queasy, even morbid pastoral interludes, trickling flutes, a lyrical andantino movement that keeps trying to swell with amorous passion and is bitten back - just the sort of clammy psychodrama that makes biographical speculation irresistible. In short, it's hard to hear this symphony without feeling thankful that one isn't Tchaikovsky. But what an explosive conclusion, showing off the orchestra's power and dramatic subtlety to best advantage. The soft timpani which stalked through a radiant haze of strings during the first movement and the ripples of plangent pizzicato that swept the stage in the scherzo were two low-key highlights in a splendid, raging climax. The standing ovation was inevitable and, deservedly, prolonged.
* The National