Feature Review: Sibelius Patriot and Mystic – The Lahti Sibelius Festival 2012 [6-8 September]

Written by: Edward Clark

Okko Kamu

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Okko Kamu

Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

6-8 September 2012

We heard Finlandia four times (in various guises). But that is as far as familiar Sibelius went in this wonderfully stimulating Festival. Otherwise it was, in part, rugged psycho-analysis (Tapiola and En Saga) and then lots of festive music (including, literally, Press Celebrations Music, which ends with the prototype Finlandia, called Finland Awakes).

Jean Sibelius in 1939

This was a Sibelius Festival free of any symphonic preoccupations, instead focusing on other aspects of his rounded genius. Orchestral music (The Wood-Nymph, Pan and Echo, Karelia Suite, Scènes historiques I and II) was mixed with various works for the theatre (Swanwhite and piano transcriptions made by Sibelius of music for Pelléas and Mélisande, King Christian II and Belshazzar’s Feast) and a number of rarely heard, even in Finland, works for male voice choir and orchestra (The Rapid-Rider’s Brides, Sandels, Song of the Athenians, The Captive Queen and March of the Finnish Jäger Battalion).

To the purist Sibelian the question arose as to how would this list of unfamiliar music stand against the mighty symphonic works for which he is best known and admired?

One early facet to note was that Sibelius is rarely uninteresting mainly because he wrote memorable melodies in virtually every genre. Another was to hear Sibelius in lighter mood, more carefree and exuberant than he is associated in his darker symphonic world. So these concerts were opportunities to bask in bright sunshine rather than dark, ambiguous shadows.

Jean Sibelius at Ainola in the 1930s

The two great exceptions were, of course, Tapiola and En saga. This performance of Tapiola confirmed its towering position in 20th-century music. It represents the peak of Sibelius’s achievement and crowned a wonderful career. Today it can be heard as a guide into future trends and styles adopted by the most varied of composers; from E. J. Moeran to Peter Maxwell Davis and György Ligeti to Per Nørgård.

This strong influence does not happen by imposing strict dictums on composers such as was the case with Schoenberg’s serial technique. Instead Sibelius seems to provide a menu of choices in his compositional devices for composers to simply take up as needed. As Julian Anderson has said, Sibelius is a Man for All Seasons, difficult to pin down but inimitable in his strength of musical personality. Tapiola enshrines this to perfection.

And what a performance we heard from Okko Kamu and his Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Kamu has a precise but seemingly spontaneous conducting style. Hence there are moments of surprise in most of his concerts. He balanced the string tones in Tapiola ideally, allowing the ear to hear the complex workings-out Sibelius pours into this score. At one time there are six different tempos being played. This can degenerate into a generalised noise. Here it was crystal-clear so we wondered anew as to how Sibelius conjured such sonorities to such bewildering effect. Then there was the beginning of the so-called storm episode. A better description, and one favoured by certain French contemporary composers, is to use the word “catastrophic” at this stage in the music. Using nature-inspired words to illustrate Sibelius never does him any good. His music is a mirror of the complexities of the human soul and mind. This was exactly the effect Kamu produced, sending shivers of trepidation down the spine. It was typical of the renewal he produced in a score that many think they know backwards.

En Saga was less successful due to a slight loss of momentum in the central section. It needs to make a firmer grip on our faculties to ensure full attention. The incessant rhythm in the lower strings can sound ordinary if a quicker pulse is not employed. But again Kamu’s concentration on the overall structure paid dividends and the poignant coda for solo clarinet was very moving, completing a thorough examination of the peculiar but utterly original soundworld Sibelius generates in this relatively early (though heard here in the 1902 revision) masterpiece.

In the choral works I sensed a slight loss of volume generated from the utterly reputable YL Male Voice Choir, perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of the music being sung. The work that made the best impression was The Captive Queen due to its more comprehensive scenario. All the works have their striking effects however and taken as a group they give some insight into what a mature Sibelius opera would have sounded like. The choral music is probably the least well known side of Sibelius’s output. Together with such masterworks as Luonnotar and Kullervo, the works for mixed voices and many of the songs we build up huge regret Sibelius never bequeathed the world the great Finnish opera that was undoubtedly lurking somewhere in his imagination.

The theatre music is one aspect of Sibelius’s output I would happily live with for a year without recourse to any other music he wrote. This was reinforced hearing the utterly ravishing, delightful and very moving score he wrote for Strindberg’s play Swanwhite, wonderfully performed under Kamu. The piano recital, in which Henri Sigfridsson played Sibelius’s piano transcriptions of music to three plays not only created charming sensations but also regret that he did not achieve the constancy of inspiration contained in the theatre music in his original piano works. Throughout this invigorating recital, superbly played, there were none of the sometimes disfiguring effects Sibelius employs in the solo works for piano. The translation of the orchestral harmonies onto the piano worked wonderfully well.

What captured my heart in this extraordinary Festival was hearing the two sets of Scènes historiques, performed with just the right lightness of touch that made Sir Thomas Beecham’s recordings of yesteryear such powerful impressions on my youthful mind. What absolute joy and exuberance, sprinkled with a little wistfulness, is heard; life-enhancing and a reminder that our world need not always be shrouded in worry and despair.

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