I have yet to descend from majestic Finnish heaven. The third of the LSO’s series featuring Leonidas Kavakos was scheduled to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis, who is recuperating from illness. His place was taken by the other great Sibelius conductor, Osmo Vänskä. Together with the LSO, this was something of a dream team in the concerto that launched the Greek violinist’s career.
This concert celebrated some of Romanticism’s most otherworldly music, soundscapes that make a country that straddles the Arctic Circle universal, that tease you with their visual potential and leave you – and many a contemporary composer – gasping with admiration at how such music is made. From the opening bars of the Sixth Symphony, it was clear that all the Sibelian ley lines were in propitious alignment, in a transcendent performance of this lovely, secretive work. Apart from factors we recklessly take for granted concerning the LSO’s superb playing – the depth, spread and luminosity of the strings and the incredible expressive range and power of woodwind and brass just for starters – Vänskä let Sibelius’s specific tempo directions (the nearest the symphony gets to slow is in the Allegretto moderato second movement) flow into the mysterious character of the music, his precise rhythmic and expressive gestures evoking the elusive shadows of Sibelius’s vision to overwhelming effect. Vänskä’s attention to shape of phrase and his direction of the multi-dimensional woodwind were only two of the factors that resulted in playing so weightless it seemed to levitate and expanded the scale of the music way beyond its mere 25 minutes’ length.
After that sublime curtain-raiser, the Violin Concerto received one of those defining performances that summed up everything you could possibly want from this great work. Kavakos was extraordinary, seeming almost reluctant to let his opening gambit of frozen isolation defrost enough to spread its wings and start gathering into hyper-expressive identity. He played a long game, investing the appearances of the bard-like motto theme with subtly varied shades of character and holding back time with the intensity of his playing in the first movement cadenzas. His guru-like overview of the concerto’s rhapsody and drama dovetailed completely with Vänskä’s interactive blend of symphonic assertion and veiled retreat, with the LSO surpassing itself.
Vänskä’s unerring identification with Sibelius was again evident in the elemental performance of the Seventh Symphony. Vänskä opened the floodgates to the themes that suddenly form themselves into glorious sequences and the harmonic plateaus that move with tectonic deliberation while, again, expanding temporal duration into timeless grandeur.