The thoughtfully serious nature of two Sibelius Symphonies suitably complemented Anders Hillborg’s Second Violin Concerto despite the space of approximately a century between their respective compositions.
The very opening of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony with its sea of closely harmonised strings has a strong similarity to the beginning of the Concerto. That Sakari Oramo had antiphonal violins made the glowing commencement of the Symphony all the more effective and an advantage later-on because there are several exchanges between the two sections. Oramo took unhurried control of the first movement allowing the fierce interruptions to emerge naturally and clearly balanced, and the disturbing up-rushes for brass and timpani were ideal in balance and superbly played. This provided a truly Sibelian sound and the conductor’s broad tempos allowed it to make full impact. Even the Scherzo did not dash forward yet it was no less dramatic and the committed playing underlined how advanced for its period the Finale is, with its frequent changes of timbre.
Hillborg’s Second Violin Concerto (2016) is dedicated to Lisa Batiashvili and for this occasion Hillborg wrote a new cadenza. Emerging from silence the strings make a shimmering prelude to the contrastingly fierce first entry of the violin. Colourful scoring is a feature of the more powerful sections and the strings provide dramatic episodes where the players often use Stokowski-style free bowing. The more demonstrative solo sections of this twenty-five-minute Concerto often feature cadenza-like episodes, growing naturally from the orchestral texture. Later, the principal cadenza, wild by nature, concluded with guest-leader Simone Roggen joining the soloist in an exciting angry duet. A large part of the work is taken up by an expansive hushed episode which might be described as a seascape over which Batiashvili hovers gently. There are contrasting forceful episodes, including fierce, dramatically effective interruptions from the bass strings. Based on respect for tonality and featuring both powerful drama and lyrical beauty, this is an imposing work and grasped the attention throughout because of the intensity with which it was performed.
Batiashvili played a comforting encore – an arrangement for violin and strings of J. S. Bach's Chorale Prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir (BWV639) – which showed a different aspect to Hillborg’s art for it was his transcription – a romantic piece, nearer in style to Barber or Bruch and very beautiful, performed with great sensitivity.
Intensity also represented the nature of Oramo’s approach to Sibelius’s uncompromising Fourth Symphony. Again considerable breadth of tempo added stature to the music yet positive forward motion remained the essence of the interpretation. The colouring was clearly defined and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played outstandingly well and cellist Susan Monks’s contribution was immaculate. As always at the Barbican Hall, one was aware of the clarity of the woodwinds but the lower-frequency response is not very positive. Double basses were set low behind second violins but had they been raised on a platform their timbre would surely have been better in evidence. Similarly, the part marked for Glocken (an abbreviation for glockenspiel or the German for bells?) in the Finale was represented only by a subtle infiltration of a silvery-sounding glockenspiel. I recall the first concert performance of the Symphony I attended and there, by contrast, Basil Cameron opted for very bold tubular bells. Sweeping firmly to the quiet, questioning conclusion of the Symphony Oramo added a final touch of feeling to his interpretation by remaining poised and the orchestra-members delayed lowering their instruments so that the well-deserved applause was suitably delayed.