Pavane pour une infante défunte
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 21 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London Queen Elizabeth Hall
No matter, London is a sufficient magnet to attract splendid substitutes in the shape of Katarina Karnéus and, then, Kazushi Ono for the flu-stricken Emmanuel Krivine. Both have wonderful credentials, Karnéus for a recent recording of Sibelius songs and Ono for his impressive 2006 Proms debut. And despite both coming late to the concert, there was no sense of rushed or ill-considered preparation.
Linking French composers with the Nordic Sibelius happens rarely but it makes sense when taking into account the Finn’s adoption of a French first name, Jean, and his receipt of the Légion d’Honneur early in his career after conducting his First Symphony in Paris in 1900. Furthermore France has a street named after Sibelius, which is more than Great Britain can boast!
The concert began with the soft, mellifluent sounds of Fauré and ended with the altogether louder exhortations of Sibelius’s wonderful Second Symphony. Ono was equal tot he demands of both. His Fauré “Dolly” Suite (as orchestrated by Rabaud from Fauré’s piano-duet original) was unforced and quite in step with the natural tunefulness displayed by one of France’s most underrated composers. Fauré did not possess the orchestral palette of his younger contemporary, Ravel, but his melodies sing and dance in a joyful fashion.
Ravel is altogether more conscious of his art. The Pavane was played at a graceful tempo that bought out the sense of mourning that often gets overlooked in more refined performances; the rather coarse sound from the orchestra, with ill-tuned woodwinds at one point, was probably affected by Ono discarding his baton. This was returned to his right hand for the more exotic and rarefied “Shéhérazade”, one of Ravel’s most perfect creations. A lot depends on the singer projecting the text against the mellifluous orchestral backdrop and Katarina Karnéus displayed clear diction and secure intonation throughout. The performance was, therefore, wrapped in warm, sensuous colours that proved compelling and alert to the link between orchestra and singer. The solo flute of Celia Chambers, accompanying Karnéus in ‘The Magic Flute’, was a highlight of the evening.
Sibelius and Japan are not obvious bedfellows until it is realised that the first Sibelius Society was established there in the 1930s. Japan’s musical establishment provided numerous pre-war performances and, post-war, Akeo Watanabe recorded the symphony cycle twice, and “Kullervo”, sung in Japanese, shortly before he died. Kazushi Ono seems to follow in this honourable tradition, producing a fine, sometimes breathtaking, interpretation of Sibelius’s troubled but ultimately majestic Second Symphony.
The provenance of this work is now known to include a religious dimension and it is not surprising to hear the struggle between darkness and light that occurs throughout.Ono propelled the opening to allow for proper comparison between the winding up and release of tension that made the first movement so compelling. The slow movement, known to come from the remnant of a tone poem about Don Juan and The Stone Guest in the guise of Death, was played with the right mixture of sadness and defiance. Perhaps more of the latter than the former only because Ono did not obtain the genuine softness of sound in the quieter episodes that should contrast so markedly with the brazen outbursts on the brass.
No matter. He launched the scherzo at a furious pace and maintained control of the rhapsodic finale so that the conclusion provided a genuine sense of redemption after the repeated plaintive melody said to be inspired by the death of Sibelius’s sister-in-law. Ono galvanised the LPO to produce a truly authentic interpretation of one of Sibelius’s great symphonic statements that still offers listeners a sense of optimistic belief in the future.