Karelia – Suite, Op.11
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Elina Vähälä (violin)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Okko Kamu with Elina Vähälä at Cadogan Hall – Sibelius
Friday, January 27, 2012 Cadogan Hall, London
Reviewed by Edward Clark
The Lahti Symphony fits snugly into Cadogan Hall, a venue not dissimilar in size to Sibelius Hall in its home town. Playing under its main maestro, Okko Kamu, the Orchestra is in excellent fettle – at the International Sibelius Festival in Lahti last September the baton was impressively passed from the era of Osmo Vänskä to Kamu.
Beginning with Karelia Suite, the ear immediately perked up with the subtle diminuendo in the strings after the opening rustle, displaying awareness throughout the concert of the importance of such gradations in sound. The playing of Karelia Suite was a joyous celebration of Karelian folk melodies that are, in fact, original to Sibelius. The orchestra is comprised entirely of Finnish nationals and they showed their pleasure in performing this noble, if generally light hearted, music.
In Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, the playing of Elina Vähälä, a vision of Nordic beauty, mirrored her appearance. Hers was a continuous stream of virtuosity, hushed at certain times, heroically brave at others. The cadenza was stunning in its control of diverse elements and the danse macabre of the finale was a tour de force of marrying technique with a joy of life. The concerto avoids the complexities and ambiguities of Sibelius’s great orchestral works, combining Romantic impulse with sexual frisson: hence its extreme popularity in the wider world.
Regarding the Fifth Symphony, Peter Paul Nash has eloquently justified his claim in print that it is the masterpiece of the 20th-century. How can this be? We have only to consider two contrasting reasons that support this view. It appeals to refined and sophisticated musical minds: Peter Maxwell Davies whose Symphony from 1976 (now seen as the First in a long cycle) was directly influenced by the first movement of Sibelius’s Fifth – at a stroke this self-proclaimed assertion changed many established views; and Morton Feldman, an American experimentalist, spoke at Darmstadt : “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservatives might really be radical.” He then hummed the tune from the finale of Sibelius’s Fifth! David Matthews, a composer of seven symphonies thus far, writes of Sibelius as representing a new beginning away from the then (early 20th-century) moribund symphonic form. This intellectual attraction to the Fifth can be contrasted to its popularity with Classic FM listeners who have voted it the third most-popular of all works, no doubt due to the finale’s glorious ‘Swan Hymn melody.
Demons of the soul appear incessantly in Sibelius’s pessimistic Fourth Symphony and also appear intermittently in the Fifth, no more so than near its conclusion. Like all evil spirits this appearance comes out of the blue and threatens to completely disrupt the mood of sublime beauty. The harsh harmonic clash on brass predicts a catastrophic conclusion. But by a stroke of absolute genius (and willpower) Sibelius sidesteps this moment of emotional cruelty and literally sweeps the great tune to a triumphant ending, hammered home by six unevenly spaced chords: ‘Be gone demons and do not return’. As in Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, it is the representation of the triumph of the human spirit.
This was fully exposed here. Okko Kamu favours a calm, unhurried opening thereby allowing the organic growth in the musical motifs to blossom. The subtlety of the playing, with bright woodwinds, astringent strings and resplendent brass conveyed this concept superbly. The middle movement generated interest instead of boredom and the finale carried all before it in its power and sheer force of personality.
The first encore was a movement from the delicate and delightful Suite mignonne for two flutes and strings (1921) and the second was the celebratory Cortège (1905) – both refreshing changes from the ubiquitous Finlandia. This concert demonstrated Okko Kamu and the Lahti Symphony as supreme in modern interpretation and performance of the wide-ranging music of Sibelius.