Two Serious Melodies, Op.77
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Kristina Blaumane (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Friday, February 05, 2010
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The final concert in Osmo Vänskä's Sibelius cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featured a non-symphonic first half – unless, that is, one considers Tapiola (1926) as the direction in which the composer's symphonic thinking was headed. This notion seems less unlikely given the concentration of a development binding together the work's textural and dynamic extremes with unfailing cohesion; something that was uppermost in this performance – at once alive to the music's sense of evocation while emphasising the formal inevitability that results from Sibelius's evolutionary process at its most rarefied. The climactic crescendo had the right unnerving intensity, and there was no false consolation in the wrenching string threnody or the equivocal cadential chords that followed. Even in the context of so fine a cycle as this, Vänskä's account was one to treasure.
Although the Two Serious Melodies (1915) inhabit a much lower, or at least restricted level of intensity, their presence here was welcome – not least the version for cello in which they were first performed. Kristina Blaumane was fully attuned to the gentle nobility of 'Cantique', among the most affecting of the miniatures that became a mainstay of Sibelius's later output, and if she seemed slightly less at ease with the pensive regret of 'Devotion', then the tendency to submerge its solo line within a texture dominated by the strings' lower register is hardly grateful to the cellist. At just over ten minutes, moreover, this diptych felt rather brief as a concert item: better to have prefaced it (as Sakari Oramo did at his Sibelius cycle in Birmingham three years ago) with Jouni Kaipainen's masterly orchestration of the earlier Malinconia to constitute an unlikely yet effective concerto malgré lui.
Along with its predecessor, the Sixth Symphony (1923) was the relative disappointment of this LPO cycle: the first movement's introduction (not necessarily slow as such) was beautifully rendered, but the main allegro lacked a degree of lyrical expansiveness – without which its prevailing rhythmic motion verged on the two-dimensional and the disruptiveness of the coda went for little. More surprising was Vänskä's seeming uncertainty as to how to pace the second movement, such that this last of the composer's 'slow movement/intermezzo' hybrids lacked direction – at least until the shimmering crescendo of its final pages. The scherzo, however, was rendered with the right athletic grace, while the finale built convincingly from a questioning opening to a surging central climax – though Vänskä's refusal to admit any overt rhetoric meant that the ensuing apotheosis was understated to a fault.
If the LPO string-players were evidently tested in some of this work's exposed writing, they seemed more at ease in the fuller textures and less elusive expressive profile of the Seventh Symphony (1924). Sibelius's ostensible symphonic testament, its seamless continuity is not easy to bring off, but Vänskä was not to be found wanting – not least in his reaffirming of this as music in a permanent state of transition, its trombone-capped climaxes being no more (though no less) than impressive structural markers shot-through with echoes and anticipations of their greater context. Not that the flights of fancy or capricious asides in its central sections were at all downplayed; nor – after an impressively wrought climax – was there a lack of emotional fulfilment in a coda which, without needing to indulge in false or undue oratory stated the work's tonal outcome as the simple and inevitable QED that it is.
A fitting way, then, to round off a Sibelius cycle whose successes far outweighed its failings. Vänskä gave a charged Valse triste as the (not wholly apposite) encore, and it is to be hoped his association with the LPO will continue over future seasons. Might a Nielsen cycle be too much to hope for?