Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47 Segerstam
Symphony No.189 (Marimekko) [First performance] Sibelius
Elina Vähälä (violin)
London Schools Symphony Orchestra
London Schools Symphony Orchestra/Segerstam Elina Vähälä
Wednesday, January 07, 2009 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Edward Clark
Music has always had its outsize characters. When I see Leif Segerstam I am reminded of the ageing Leopold Stokowski slowly appearing on the platform, frail and seemingly unable to stand for very long. Leif Segerstam gives a good impression but both maestros galvanised their orchestras once the baton descended. Both also made orchestras sound better than they probably are under different conditions.
So when Leif Segerstam began the Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony the sound had a striking distinction, the timpani figure announcing a slow ascending scale on the cellos and double basses. Segerstam prefers a spacious opening that allows depth of tone to make its mark. He then proceeded to confirm the work’s astonishing ability to form and reform itself over a twenty-minute time span, capturing both a sense of turmoil and tranquillity en route.
This was a powerfully expressive view, well executed by young musicians whose experience thus far could not allow comprehension of the spiritual life-force contained in this sublime music. Segerstam’s triumph was to make the audience sense greatness in the music through his ability to shape and harness the music’s structure, one that remains obscure and difficult.
Next came a much more popular side to Sibelius, the Violin Concerto. Surprisingly few Finnish violinists have mastered this work. Anja Ignatius was among its first female performers and she, like her near-contemporary, the American Guila Bustabo recorded the concerto in war-time Berlin. Both ladies’ reputations consequently suffered in post-war Europe (and, in Bustabo’s case, in America too – the New York Philharmonic banned her!). Today the Kuusisto brothers have built reputations for performing this work and now the world can admire Elina Vähälä, a name new to many outside of Finland – but she is assured of a bright future.
She had to contend with a large orchestra behind her, thoughtfully and exhilaratingly controlled by Segerstam but she never wavered, offering a purity of tone and eloquence of execution that made this one of the finest interpretations of the work heard for a long time. Hopefully she will be back soon.
Segerstam composes as well as conducts. Here he premiered his Symphony No.189 (as at the date of this concert he has written 215!) and which is dedicated to the Finnish design house. Much has been read about his “free-pulsative” style but such jargon stands in the way of wider acceptance of his music. He seems to have taken as his model Sibelius’s Seventh – Segerstam's symphonic credo encapsulates a duration of about twenty minutes for each symphony, at least the recent ones. Of those I know I can say that No.189 is, perhaps, clearer in outline than others, though remaining a tonal-free zone. All are hard nuts to crack mainly due to a lack of harmonic progression, which can lead to monotony.
The complexity of execution, where the composer sits to the side of the orchestra improvising on the piano – there is no conductor – would tax a professional band. The London Schools Symphony Orchestra made light of the difficulties and secured a confident performance that did all the musicians credit. Segerstam appeared at the end with a broad smile, perhaps a mixture of relief and appreciation for a job well done.
The concert ended with Finlandia suitably re-touched by Segerstam. LSSO concerts are a triumph of youthful musicianship. In return, the audience’s enthusiasm, generated by the players’ peers, adds to the joy of hearing great and interesting music in an atmosphere of mutual celebration.