Sakari Oramo’s Nielsen Symphony cycle with the BBC Symphony Orchestra continued with another well-planned programme that opened with a Sibelius rarity – the so-called ‘Yale’ version of The Oceanides (1914). At barely eight minutes, this is less a preliminary study than the cohesive utilising of ideas the composer soon deployed with audibly greater potency. Yet the piece heard here exudes its own fascination, unfolding obliquely though intently as a gnomic counterpart to The Dryad heard at the previous concert in this series. Nor was this a first London hearing – Osmo Vänskä having brought it to the Proms in 2003 – making it significant that, unlike those earlier versions of the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony, the Sibelius Estate has not embargoed its performance; wholly to our benefit.
There could hardly have been a greater contrast than with the Maeterlinck Songs (1913/22) by Zemlinsky. Not initially intended as a cycle, these evocations of passively dysfunctional humans at a remove from their environs are a highly intelligible sequence and Oramo tackled them accordingly. Exquisite playing from the BBCSO woodwinds and strings only enhanced the contribution from Anne Sofie von Otter, her voice having lost little of its elegance and lustre, in what is as intriguing and thought-provoking a song-cycle as any from the fin de siècle era.
Further contrast came in the guise of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin (1917/19), this most refined of tributes to colleagues fallen in wartime and (even in this abbreviated orchestral sequence) a marvel of incremental change as it moves from a limpid ‘Prélude’, via the deftly astringent ‘Forlane’ and winsome ‘Menuet’ (is there a more exquisite instance of this dance from any era?), to the incisive ‘Rigaudon’ with its haunting trio. The BBCSO responded in like fashion, with Oramo alive to those nuances of gesture that give this music added allure.
It was a tribute to the excellence of these performances when the works themselves were not outfaced by Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (1916) that ended the concert. How to interpret the ‘Inextinguishable’ depends on whether one sees it as a ‘four-in-one’ or continuous entity. Here the opening Allegro was forcefully yet not too hectically launched, with Oramo maintaining tension on to a second subject wistful in its rumination and its energetic transformation held in check such that the first appearance of the work’s unifying ‘motto’ had all the necessary grandeur prior to its more headlong appearance near the close. There followed an intermezzo whose whimsy was deftly undercut in the mordent trio (with its hints of earlier unrest), while the coda’s enfolding poise made the anguished arrival of the third movement more startling.
Oramo was mindful to observe the quasi andante marking here so that the heartfelt central section never felt lachrymose, with the gradual return of the main theme finely judged on the way to a surging culmination. The hushed transition into the fugato near the start of the finale was spellbindingly rendered, and while what followed did not lack for impact –with duelling timpani having the correct antiphonal immediacy at a steadier and more implacable tempo than is customary – it was the hushed episode prior to the ensuing onslaught which resonated most readily in the mind. The climactic return of the ‘motto’ duly hit the ground running as its last chord eloquently clinched the tonal argument, setting the seal on an account of real lucidity and conviction: one, moreover, that demonstrated this BBCSO/Oramo partnership at something near its best.