Here's a challenge to keep a composer awake at night: write a work that can be played in a concert hall and on the side of a mountain. That's what Kalevi Aho, the prolific Finnish symphonist, found himself contemplating after he was sought out by percussionist Colin Currie and pressed for a concerto. The mountainside is the site of the Luosto Classic Festival in northern Finland, whose slopes form a natural theatre and whose history gives the work its title.
Sieidi, from the northern Finnish language Samí, is the word for an ancient cult or ritual place. Aho thinks Luosto was probably used for this purpose. Ritual is the overriding force in the concerto, whether in the pounding opening or in the frenzied solos given to the percussionist as he moves around the stage from hand-beaten drums to pitched instruments (marimba, vibraphone) to tam-tam, then back in sequence. It's not all vigorous and primitive: on reaching the marimba, the soloist seems to tame the previously restless orchestra; later, crystalline bowed vibraphone marks the point of furthest retreat from the clatter.
Of course, this premiere performance could only demonstrate the piece in one of its required locations and in the great Finnish outdoors it may come off quite differently. The broad strokes of the orchestral parts will be a necessity in the open, but in the concert hall they seemed to negate a richer exploration of the more interesting textural flourishes. Those moments were the most valuable: the exchanges between the soloist and orchestral percussion; the ripples of hand-bells; the striking conclusion, mixing distant string harmonics with rattling rain-sticks. Its single-movement arc doesn't move much beyond the primal pounding, but it couldn't have asked for a more convincing first performance: Colin Currie tackled the work with a winningly energetic panache and Osmo Vänskä steered the London Philharmonic through a confident reading.
The Overture to Schumann’s only opera, Genoveva, might have seemed overawed by the force of nature that followed it, but Vänskä wasn't about to let this opener off lightly. True, the darkly hued introduction unfurled too tentatively to really draw us in to its gloomy web, but Vänskä ultimately succeeded by ramping up the major-key conclusion in tempo and vigor and rendering it a more convincing antidote to the opening pall than it can sometimes sound.
Vänskä’s approach to Brahms’s First Symphony was also varied in success. Sculpted string phrases and careful balancing rendered the first and last movements oddly weightless, but he found ideal tempos for the central movements which elicited the best playing. The Andante was finest of all, marked by wonderfully rich but tonally varied string playing, making up for some ensemble chaos in the first movement. Ultimately, though, Vänskä’s reading lacked the cohesion that comes with an idea of what the symphony means as a whole.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
- Southbank Centre