The Bolt – Suite
Trombone Concerto [UK premiere]
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Jörgen van Rijen (trombone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 10 May, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s guest conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, hails from Moscow, so was right at home with Shostakovich. The Bolt was delivered with panache and not a little polish, helped by Vedernikov’s determination to provide his own as well as the composer’s ironic characteristics. Arms aloft, he launched into the music with gusto, producing the necessary bombast. Early Shostakovich can be so much fun!
Calmer waters descended at the opening of the next work, Kalevi Aho’s long and ambitious Trombone Concerto. The only thing it lacked is something memorable. There were ample opportunities for melody but they remained under wraps, alas. Otherwise we heard his accustomed excellent orchestration and virtuosity from the pen of this wonderful Finnish modern master. Cast in four movements, two are moderate and two fast, offering both reflective moments and high jinks. There is satisfying unity to the work … if only we could have taken away a tune to hum.
Only high praise can be showered on the soloist, Jörgen van Rijen, who coped superbly with the many demands made on him by Aho’s imagination, including the need to play two trombones, the alto and tenor, and sing at the same time. The fast movements were dispatched with brio and the score was given the best possible London launch.
There is plenty of melody in Sibelius’s first essay in abstract symphonic form. Befitting the end of the Sibelius cycle from the BBCSO this season this work represents the end of the beginning of Sibelius’s compositional career. With critical demands for something more than colourful programmatic works, Sibelius was nonplussed to be usurped by a much younger Finnish composer, Ernst Mielck, in producing the first Finnish symphony two years before his own. He was, therefore, determined to produce a big, ambitious work suited to his new status as Finland’s coming man in the wider world of European music. It is ironic that early listeners heard in the work a rebuff to Russian hegemony over Finland. The predominant influence lies in the near-contemporary works by Tchaikovsky. A revised version followed a year later where Sibelius added the opening clarinet soliloquy, an act of pure genius which heralds the emerging originality in his symphonic quest.
It could have been expected that Vedernikov would emphasise this Russian aspect. In fact he produced a view that, in many ways, showed the work to best advantage, albeit after a sluggish start. The first movement lacked the thrust Sibelius surely wished for, and the slow movement was too sentimental for a Nordic soul to be associated with. Thereafter matters picked up with an urgent scherzo and a finale that was thrilling, the orchestra pulling out all the stops in sound and fury. The gorgeous big tune was not sentimentalised; it flowed perfectly allowing the movement to cohere. The coda summed up this extraordinary work with its display of implacable tension released in consummate style before disappearing in a hush.