Music for the Press Celebrations [UK premiere]
Two Serious Melodies – Cantique and Devotion, Op.77
Symphony No.1 in E-minor, Op.39
Guy Johnston (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 December, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
A Sibelius programme to mark the centenary of Finland as an autonomous nation was an obvious concert for the BBC Symphony Orchestra to have given with Sakari Oramo; players and conductor accordingly giving of their best to make this an auspicious event.
Not the least of its attractions was the first complete hearing in the UK of Music for the Press Celebrations (1899), which snappy title saw Sibelius marking a fund-raising occasion through music for six tableaux encompassing the Grand Duchy’s history while covertly encouraging Finnish aspirations for autonomy in the process. Over half of this music outlasted its purpose – tableaux one, three and four revised as the first set of Scènes historiques (which Oramo conducted at this year’s Proms), and it was fascinating to hear the evocative ‘The Song of Väinämöinen’, the bracing ‘Scene from Duke John’s Court’ then the alternately pensive and heroic ‘The Finns in the Thirty Years War’ in their original guise; formal and expressive rough edges not inappropriate in the context of so emotionally charged an event.
Not that the second and fifth tableaux are less memorable, though Sibelius might have been hard-pressed to refashion the dense textures and static harmonies of ‘The Finns are Baptised’, or the fervent if discursive unfolding of ‘The Great Hostility’ into a more abstract or at least less-specific context. Not that such issues inhibited Oramo, who characterised each section with powerful immediacy; the sequence topped with a ‘Prelude’ for wind and percussion of ceremonial import then tailed with the imposing vision of the future that is ‘Finland Awakes’. This final piece soon found fame as Finlandia and it was astute of Oramo not to render it in the first version with its rather perfunctory end, but in an intermediate version with the hymn-tune rendered in full at the climax – thereby bringing the whole work to a more decisive close.
Contrast came after the interval with the Two Serious Melodies (1915) in its rarely heard yet more fitting version with cello. The years of the First World War were arduous for Sibelius, who produced numerous shorter pieces while grappling with his Fifth Symphony. Brief as is the present brace, its underlying intensity can hardly be doubted – not least in the way that the eloquent ‘Cantique’ finds a pointed contrast with the sombre ‘Devotion’. Guy Johnston gave these miniatures with thoughtful restraint, their poise never obscuring emotional acuity.
Finally, the First Symphony (1899) – a work that Oramo has given with orchestras in Birmingham, Helsinki and Bucharest (among others), but this reading underlined just how his interpretation has evolved – not least an opening movement whose momentum was finely propelled and an Andante whose emotional warmth never cloyed. The Scherzo had impetus and wistfulness, and then Oramo’s control during the Finale banished any thought of its al fresco construction in favour of a formal follow-through as cohesive as it was inevitable.
With the BBCSO at its collective best, this was a high-point of the current Oramo-led Sibelius cycle and one to which the audience’s response was immediate and prolonged – the sight of Finnish flags unfurled only adding to the sense of occasion as informed this whole concert.