Osmo Vänskä is always a welcome visitor to London and is known for his prowess in Sibelius’s symphonic works. This concert began a Symphony Cycle to be performed over four evenings and in order of composition. The London Philharmonic was in full cry with an utterly inspired conductor who seems more devoted to Sibelius than ever.
To begin with the Karelia Suite got the concert off to a winning start. The perky and buoyant tempos chosen for the first and third movements proved irresistible; bells-up from the horns in the ‘Alla marcia’, too. Vänskä made the ‘Ballade’ middle movement more interesting than normal by his careful graduation of the dynamic markings and the lovely cor anglais solo was beautifully played by Sue Böhling.
Each of these concerts includes British music for violin/or cello and orchestra. Britten’s Violin Concerto received a truly stunning performance from Simone Lamsma, who has absorbed the many felicities in this work; the audience received the full emotional force of this early yet already fully characteristic work. Completed in 1939, the first performance was the following year, in New York with Antonio Brosa and the Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli. The British premiere in 1941 was with the London Philharmonic under Basil Cameron, the soloist being Thomas Matthews. Britten revised the work in 1950. Lamsma’s playing was, in turn, fierce, fearless and flexible to the differing demands of a complex score.
Vänskä’s interpretation of Sibelius’s Symphonies is under constant development: “the same ideas can sound different.” None more so than his fresh use of rubato in the first movement where his customary fast initial tempo is now tempered by greater elasticity in the middle section, marked Tranquillo. This is now lovingly sculptured.
The whole work is projected with the confidence of a young nationalist aware of Russia’s increasing oppression of Finnish freedom of expression. I have never heard a performance where the usually accepted Russian musical influence is so diminished. It’s so easy to make the broad theme in the Finale sound like a spin-off from Tchaikovsky’s sketchbook but here was entirely free of rhetoric, cleaned of superfluous emotion. The powerful coda became an inexorable statement of national pride. No wonder the contemporary Finlandia was suppressed by the Russian authorities.
This view by Vänskä seems entirely appropriate today where Russia, a country in the mood for generating mischief and misery, can be told by its Finnish neighbour, ‘don’t mess with us’, thanks to the emotional power of Jean Sibelius’s music.