International Sibelius Festival, Lahti, September 2009

Written by: Edward Clark

The descent of the summer sun sees the annual Sibelius Festival at Lahti in Finland, where the sun sets over the lake during each concert. Did Sibelius ever produce a more wondrous event?

Well, 2009 saw a focus on the middle-period works. Oh dear you might say. Does that include the Fourth Symphony? Well, yes it does. But the Festival began with the year 1902 and the Second Symphony in an extremely passionate performance under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, not known for wearing his heart on his sleeve. Anybody can change and this performance took many by surprise. This was truly Sibelius in the melting pot, not of a nationalist kind but purely of the mind. After all, the symphony came to us as a result of a mental breakdown and the crisis could be clearly heard in the first movement, fast and furious.

1904 saw the final version of the Violin concerto, here performed by the Norwegian, Henning Kraggerud in a resplendent, virtuosic manner. A huge welcome followed to be met by encores by Ole Bull and Ysaÿe. The Third Symphony from 1907 was more debatable; a fast first movement somehow diminished the stature of the music and the rest that followed never recovered. This remarkable work is much better than most performances let onto. Colin Davis has its measure today. Better to listen to his view if the meaning behind the composer’s intentions is to be discovered.

The third concert was surely the ne plus ultra of Sibelius angst; Pohjola’s Daughter, The Oceanides, Nightride and Sunrise, The Bard – and the Fourth Symphony, a climactic work in this context; it received a monumental performance, harsh as fate as described by the composer. The il tempo largo third movement was majestic being taken in a broad manner as the composer must have intended with his marking. The finale, so incomprehensible even to connoisseurs, ended in a manner more akin to its symphonic antipode, the Ninth Symphony of Mahler. The silence endured. Finlandia duly followed but there was an escape route to the glorious Finnish sunset, lakeside. Only silence was required after this masterful portrayal of the human spirit under duress.

Sibelius’s genius is to illuminate darkness. It is a gift not accorded to ordinary mortals. His is music that enshrines humanity’s ability to overcome adversity. All the music we heard after the Violin Concerto arises from sketches, written down in 1905, for an oratorio. Somehow Sibelius creates different areas of feeling from a common root born out of a profound sense of religious belief. Like the marvellous performances we heard this was something new for us to understand.

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