This was one of those unexpected pleasures that you catch at the end of a long winter day with no expectation in mind other than the knowledge that fine music in reliable hands is on offer. We know the Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes to be assertively a man of the theatre, a devotee of John Adams, and a tight-reined modernist, with a quiet gift for the spectacular. Over the years, though, he's shown also a fine grasp of the big symphonic repertory, Bruckner Eight, Mahler Three and Strauss's Ein Heldenleben springing to mind. Among his earliest recordings, the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Pieter Wispelwey and the Netherlands Philharmonic, released in 1996, displayed remarkable thought and maturity of span for a man then still in his mid-twenties. Placing the listening process at a premium, he's an engaged, engaging artist, valuing the democratic process of musicians working and discussing together. “We're not just a conductor, a flautist ... we offer each other something, we make music together … it's about giving and taking … becoming a single voice.” Reminding of Iván Fischer in Budapest, it's a positive attitude to have.
With Finlandia he took an old warhorse and found new dimensions. Not many, nothing sensationalist (far from it), but enough to make one sit up. Acute accents and an awareness of Sibelius's long hairpins. The brass warmly mellow, burnished rather than brazen. The big cello moments singing with a deep, penetrating cantabile, Brahmsian in intensity and sweep, phrased with all the time of a northern night. Gone were the snarls of popular custom. In was of sovereign nobility. That the Allegro four bars before Letter F was marginally late, a clear interpretative decision, was of little consequence. It's a tricky corner at the best of times (on disc, Beecham's view is wilfully disregarding; of the Järvis, Neeme gets it right, Paavo doesn’t). The clipped 6/8 rhythms and rests of Nightride and Sunrise – another page in that journey of sleepless incantations begun a century before by Beethoven and Schubert – played to the minimalist in Renes. Never slackening his pulse, he forged them relentlessly while conscious always of the need for mapping and climax.
Letting fly the cellular, repetitive world of Janáček, living the notion of seeds growing into mighty oaks, breathing the music as one might privately murmur or publicly orate, produced a magnificent Sinfonietta. Songs and dances, fragments and details blossomed. Speech rhythms rustled. Fanfares resounded. Pagan drums sent ancient word, high and low pitches tuned in a way to send shivers. Majesty there was in plenty, but intimacy too, a lingering sensuality, the most-tender of asides and punctuations. Benefitting from the Helsinki Philharmonic in keenly supportive form, this was an imposing account. It isn't often that you see so many musicians on the edge of their seats, watching, smiling and willing every gesture of hands and baton into beauties of sound and phrasing, come the end joining in the audience's applause. No dissolute back-deskers here. Just a glory-strength premier team, among the finest (and oldest) in Europe, playing as one. The acoustics of the hall, quality Scandinavian sound-engineering with its love of physicality, resonance and air, plus directorially responsive camerawork, added to the experience.
The not inconsiderable matter, in the first half, of Jaakko Kuusisto's 2011 Violin Concerto, in the composer's presence, took us on other adventures. Beginning with a long solo introduction, the work, in two halves, professes no programme. But in the tradition of the great 'conversation' or 'battle-ground' concertos of the past, it's an essay abundant in drama and incident, begging all manner of adjectives. Music, Colin Anderson suggests, that “flies high yet also takes us into the woods.” Big tunes, luscious allusions and virile scoring, lend it well to the public. It offers a major challenge to the soloist. And conductors have their work cut out. At around twenty-eight minutes, Ari Vilhjálmsson, principal second violin of the Helsinki Philharmonic, gave a breathtakingly brilliant performance, from memory, scarcely improvable. Taking nothing for granted, Renes matched his every sigh and move, getting the orchestra to smoulder and boil, poetry and passion at a premium. Expanses of lyric sound, incisive percussion attacks, ruminating shadowlands, walls of bravura tutti, set the backcloth, the foreground, for a dedicated, riveting encounter. A virtuoso ride, heart on sleeve. Electrifying.