This tribute from the Buffalo Philharmonic to Jean Sibelius, released in his 150th-anniversary year, begins with a rousing account of Finlandia that opens with growly brass and tumultuous timpani and goes on, via plangent woodwinds and dug-into strings, to an exciting allegro, a poignant (if unsentimental) hymn-tune and a thrilling triumphalism, the recording vivid, even cinematic. But the explicit in-your-lap sound is less kind to ‘The Swan of Tuonela’, which lacks mystery despite Anna Mattix’s eloquence on English horn (cor anglais) and some sensitive strings; essential music, of course, and JoAnn Falletta and her players have its potential. (As an aside, whatever the composer finally decided, I firmly believe that The Swan should be placed third when part of the Lemminkäinen Legends.)
The centrepiece of the disc is the Violin Concerto, with Michael Ludwig. It’s a work you can hear too often, but this account restores its vitality and beauty. Ludwig gives an impassioned reading of the solo part, smouldering, murmuring and, when required, uninhibited. The occasional smudge of intonation aside, Ludwig brings panache and identity to his task: the first-movement cadenza is impressive, the Adagio deeply poetic and the Finale is ideally paced, the musicians taking heed of Sibelius’s ma non tanto qualification: infectious dance-like measures ensue. Throughout, Falletta and the Buffalo players offer staunch support to their (now former) Concertmaster.
These are live performances, with applause removed, that show the Buffalo Philharmonic to be in fine fettle under JoAnn Falletta’s directorship, now well into its second decade. ‘Valse triste’ is nominally my least-favourite Sibelius piece – but this version flows more than most, and its lilt is most persuasive, the music remains dark but is not made mawkish. It is rather odd though to end with The Bard, enigmatic throughout and stopping as if in mid-sentence. While compellingly characteristic of its composer, The Bard (its economic scoring includes striking use of a harp) leaves the listener wanting more and, with enough room for it, Pohjola’s Daughter comes to mind – now that is essential. Nevertheless, there is much to relish here and the illustrious Finnish composer has been handsomely acknowledged in western New York.