BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oramo – Sibelius Symphony Cycle: 1 [Symphony 3 + Tintagel, Leino Songs & Luonnotar]

Leino Songs [UK premiere]
Luonnotar, Op.70
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52

Anu Komsi (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 28 October, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sakari Oramo. Photograph: Adrian BurrowsStep forward the sage of Finnish forests and lakes, Jean Sibelius. That, at least, in some quarters is the view of the Finnish master, a nature poet given to vivid descriptions of his natural habitat. The symphonies are, however, purely abstract works free of evocative titles and should be judged as pure music, much as we judge the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms. Sibelius’s star has risen markedly over the past thirty years. The composer Julian Anderson writes that there is hardly any living composer not indebted to Sibelius’s compositional mastery.

Putting aside obvious comparisons with his symphonic antipode, Gustav Mahler (nevertheless it remains a fascinating comparison of divergence and, in my opinion, eventual convergence in 1911, when Sibelius’s Fourth and Mahler’s Tenth display so many uncanny similarities of form and substance), the BBC Symphony Orchestra cycle (with different conductors) opened with the Third Symphony, the premiere of which in Helsinki prompted the now famous conversation between the two masters about the nature of the symphony.

It was thoughtful to open the cycle with the Third, an immediately accessible work into the mysterious soundworld of Sibelius. Malcolm Arnold remarked about the unique texture in Sibelius and it is this sound we first hear in the Third Symphony. It is a quality that every composer strives for but few succeed in achieving in their music. It was the first Sibelius symphony I heard in a rather rushed and impetuous recording by Anthony Collins (made in the early 1950s) but it made an indelible impression. Sakari Oramo led a truly titanic performance; the first movement was bright-eyed and bushy tailed, not too fast but with real momentum, the inward moments well caught. The middle movement, so often taken too fast, was a marvel of contrasts from the sublime, disquieting opening (like something crawling out from under a stone, as Sir Colin Davis once mentioned) through to the middle section where the double basses seemingly meander as if on a different planet thereby disconnecting the listener from a sense of reality. The last movement was full of intellectual interest as to how Sibelius joins two totally contrasting movements, a scherzo and finale, into a satisfying whole, ending with brazen optimism. The Third Symphony is an undoubted masterpiece, evocative, exhilarating and experimental.

It ended a concert that had opened with almost its polar opposite, Tintagel by Arnold Bax, more a torrid tumult of emotions. The second subject (perhaps his way of demonstrating his love for his then mistress, Harriet Cohen) reappears near the end in a rapturous celebration of life and love. Oramo galvanised the BBCSO to an extraordinary degree, making the whole work convincing.

The two middle works were sung by the wonderful Anu Komsi in full flow. What a superb voice she possesses and a versatile one too. This was in great demand particularly when reaching for the stars in her top notes, required by both composers.

Kaija Saariaho goes from strength to strength in her vocal writing; effective and beautifully crafted. She displays a meticulous ear, the orchestra complementing but never overwhelming the eloquence of the solo line.The most extraordinary performance, however, was Luonnotar by Sibelius. Here it was truly exceptional because Komsi sang it as an operatic masterpiece. It was thrilling and terrifying in turns, with a held silence near the beginning that must have unnerved even those familiar with the score. She became the Spirit of Nature (the English title of the work) with a degree of expressive nuance and sheer power of execution that questioned which was the more-modern work of the two vocal works. This concert was a great start to the BBCSO’s Sibelius cycle.

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