Celebrating Sibelius II

Karelia – Suite, Op.11
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 September, 2007
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Sakari Oramo. Photograph: CBSO/Adrian BurrowsThe second in Sakari Oramo and the CBSO’s Sibelius cycle brought the last three symphonies, with the Karelia Suite as an unlikely entrée. From near the opposite end of his composing career, this selection from incidental music (itself only recently revived) written to accompany historical tableaux was for much of the previous century among the composer’s most often-heard works, and may be again now that ‘Sunday matinee’-type programmes are returning to favour. Not that Oramo played up any light-music associations: the ‘Ballade’ was notably sombre in its ruminations, while the ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Alla Marcia’ either side had a weight and thoughtfulness to belie their status as orchestral ‘lollipops’. A touch of rhythmic heaviness detracted only marginally from an unusually substantial performance.

It was a jolt, nonetheless, to go straight into the Fifth Symphony – long in the making and the mostperfectly achieved of the cycle in its combining of formal rigour with expressive directness. Oramo pursued a flowing but unhurried tempo for the initial half of the first movement, shaping its climaxes with unobtrusive rightness and drawing a palpable expectancy from the bassoon soliloquy before the culminating transition into the Allegro. Unlike Simon Rattle, 20 years ago, Oramo eschewed a sense of this latter half as constantly speeding-up; the music gathering momentum more by inference, though there was no mistaking the velocity accrued by the closing bars. Poised between slow movement and intermezzo, the Andante was never passive in mood and its darker undercurrents subtly underlined. Similarly, the strategic dissonances that motivate the finale were as one with the inevitability with which it heads towards its ultimate triumph – here shot through with a tensile strength and with the final six chords accelerating in their follow-through in a way that added to the overall exhilaration.

Oramo chose to run the latter two, but not the first two movements of this work together; whereas in the Sixth Symphony, he ran the central two but not (as before) the last two movements together: the point being that both works really benefit from as close a continuity as possible. Especially the Sixth, as the degree of emphasis given to the close of each movement can transform this ostensible four-movement work into a single entity. Which is what Oramo achieved here – with each movement ‘turning the corner’ into the next so that the string threnody closing the finale comes ‘full circle’ with that opening the first movement. No other work by Sibelius so conceals its greater coherence or possesses such hidden depths; qualities fully in evidence in a reading that captured the essence of a symphony which, perhaps even more than the Fourth, has only belatedly come into its own. And, in the limpidity and chamber-like transparency of its textures, this performance was a joy to behold.

The Seventh is, of course, the archetypal one-movement symphony and Oramo manifestly conveyed its seamlessness in an account that transcended what had previously seemed anti-climactic in the context of the cycle as whole. Part of the reason was the skill with which a slow underlying pulse was inferred through the faster central spans, short-term activity merging with long-term momentum such that the trombone theme brought greater intensity on each reappearance. Less fluid in his traversal than Osmo Vänskä in his recent Proms account, Oramo was no less convincing in eliding between main sections and transitions so that the emphasis was always firmly on the music to come, while the almost brusque inevitability of the final bars has seldom felt more ‘right’. It would have been an impressive end to the cycle – except that there is one further instalment.

  • Further concert on 26 September
  • CBSO

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