With the music of Sibelius and Grieg about to take centre stage at the Abu Dhabi Classics, Geoff Brown looks at the relationship between the magnificent landscape and culture of Scandinavia and why the region continues to produce a wealth of prestigious classical talent. Here is a question for music lovers. Which of the world's geographical areas has spawned the most prized composers and musicians in the classical music field? Italy would get some votes for opera and song alone; Russia might collect others for tempestuous music-making across all genres. Yet if we are thinking of music's past, most votes should probably and rightly go to the European heartlands, to Austria and Germany - the lands of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and the core classical tradition.
But how about a place for Scandinavia, lands of fjords, Ibsen and saunas? It is worth some serious thought, especially in the light of the Abu Dhabi Classics presentation on February 9, Symphonic Masterworks - Scandinavian Landscapes. That concert brings the music of Sibelius, the Finnish composer of transcendent genius, and Grieg, a Norwegian nationalist with much more to offer than the romantic sweetmeats of his piano concerto. We should also consider the concert's musicians: conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste (director of the Oslo Philharmonic) and the young musicians of the Sibelius Academy Orchestra in Helsinki - an orchestra and institution central to the current boom in Nordic classical music-making.
Everywhere you turn, Scandinavian conductors, mostly Finnish, have risen to the top. Think of the gifted Saraste's contemporaries: among others, there is the Finnish Radio Orchestra's Sakari Oramo, formerly at Birmingham in the UK; Esa-Pekka Salonen, now with London's Philharmonia Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, a fiendishly good orchestral trainer working his magic in Minneapolis; and Susanna Mälkki, a rising star in contemporary music. All these conductors, Saraste included, were taught by Jorma Panula, the former professor of conducting at the Sibelius Academy (Finland's only state-funded music university).
Over the decades Panula has earned enough renown to be called "the maestro of maestros". Now in his late seventies, he's coming to Abu Dhabi himself and will share his insights during a series of masterclasses (February 1-5). Who knows what new conductors will eventually sprout from that event? What is it about Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark that inspires great musicianship? The landscape and climate must help. Scandinavia's artists find it hard to be sun-kissed sybarites; in lands reaching up to the Arctic, people buckle down to the job in hand, whether it's composing, introspection, or gloomy. The landscape, along with the people's folk music, seep deep into the music, too.
Grieg's incidental music for Ibsen's five-act verse play Peer Gynt (the concert features an orchestral suite) includes vivid depictions of natural wonders - daybreak and storm - alongside the characters' dramas. Grieg's harmonies, melodic contours and pedal notes sustained in the bass register regularly point to his folk song roots. At the same time, Grieg wouldn't be Grieg without the examples of Chopin, Schumann and other 19th-century masters of the intimately lyrical. His two sides fuse particularly effectively in his songs and piano music, still underexposed in concerts.
But it's Sibelius who holds the real key to the glories of Nordic music. Portraits of Sibelius in his lengthy old age - he died aged 91, in 1957 - show a face as craggy and impervious as any outcrop of rock buffeted by the Arctic gales. You hear that face in his music too, in the many passages in his seven symphonies when spare motifs ruminate, textures thin and time stands still. Close your eyes in a Sibelius symphony and you see sea spray, wheeling gulls, large desolate skies, majestic swans or the sudden blaze of the midnight sun. Some of his pieces, such as the rousing Finlandia, trumpet national sentiment; he was a stout Finnish patriot. Yet when writing in top gear nothing was routinely flag-waving or descriptive; Sibelius's great legacy to the future was to forge his idiosyncratic musical arguments through constant metamorphoses of themes and moods, growing and mutating like nature itself.
Saraste's programme, unfortunately, doesn't include a Sibelius symphony; the featured symphony is from Russia, Tchaikovsky's feverish and powerful Fourth. Yet Sibelius's Humoresques, six pieces for violin and orchestra should be welcomed in their own right. They show us Sibelius's gift for melody - not as heart-tugging as Tchaikovsky's, admittedly, but the melodies have their own characteristic flavour and easily lodge in the mind. They display the composer's dexterity and versatility, while still hinting in their wistful moments at the inner torments that periodically led Sibelius to depression, alcoholism and solitude.
Perhaps in the very clarity of Sibelius's writing you can catch the cool Nordic air and winter light. It's a far cry from the Middle Eastern heat: all the more reason to savour it and give thanks for Scandinavian music. Symphonic Masterworks - Scandinavian Landscapes is at the Emirates Palace on Feb 6. For tickets, see www.abudhabi-classics.com.