CBSO/Oramo – 5 November

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Tapiola, Op.112

Freddy Kempf (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 November, 2002
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Sir Simon Rattle programmed the last three Sibelius symphonies on several occasions in Birmingham during the early 1980s. Sakari Oramo might be thought to have ’gone one better’ in following the last two symphonies with Tapiola – a work whose symphonic status has been, and continues to be, hotly debated.

There was no doubt as to Oramo’s overall conception of the Sixth Symphony. The blissful polyphony of the opening merged seamlessly into the main movement, with momentum only undermined when the coda erupts to deflect the music onto a different course. The ensuing ’Allegretto’ was swiftly but limpidly paced, Oramo opening out the rustling semiquaver passage near the close with delightful piquancy. The third movement, brusque and purposeful, was more than a little vivacious – leading straight into the imploring gestures of the ’Finale’. Clearly the work’s centre of gravity as Oramo hears it, the last movement moved powerfully to a coda where spiritual yearning gives way to calm acceptance. ’Pure spring water’, as the composer perceived it, and as natural as breathing too.

Few works could follow this without jarring the mood. Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody was not a bad choice, and Freddy Kempf’s thoughtful, often chamber-like approach yielded its fair share of rewards. He was especially successful in entering the dark, unsettled mood of the 16th and 17th variations, though the emotional surge of the famous 18th felt a little contrived. Moreover, the final half-dozen variations had character but insufficient élan, as though Kempf was unsure how to draw the work to a close. Excellent playing from the CBSO – in what is often a ’concerto for orchestra’ – gave character to a performance which, robust and insightful, lacked incandescence.

Hearing Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony and Tapiola in succession was a rare treat, and Oramo did not disappoint. In the symphony, his interpretation sounds still to be in the process of ’becoming’. The characterising of themes, in the context of an ongoing and irresistible formal process, is not quite in balance – with the first and third appearances of the trombone’s ’spinal column’ impressive but not yet inevitable. Even so, the ’Vivacissimo’ episode was tangibly mysterious – and, after a powerful second appearance of the trombones, the ’Allegro’ had an unaffected poetry. The coda, raptly expressive, clinched a performance of no mean authority.

Whereas his authority in Tapiola is already absolute. At 16 minutes, this was a performance that eschewed the granitic weight of Karajan (his final recording rightly listed in the programme’s “Further Listening” section) in favour of the swift, almost imperceptible contrasts of mood and texture which Sibelius refines to a degree unequalled before or since. Little feeling of ’tonal movement’ from a key-change perspective there may be, but the underlying harmonic motion is as intensive as in any of the later symphonies and tone poems – played out in an unbroken span through to the implacability of the final bars.

Hearing such a towering masterwork, it’s hard to imagine where Sibelius would have gone next. As the ill-fated Eighth Symphony appears to confirm, even he remained unsure. Had he heard Oramo’s visceral and penetrating account, he would have had no doubt that the direction taken by Tapiola was the right one.

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