London Philharmonic/Saraste Alexander Toradze – Sibelius and Rachmaninov

Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Alexander Toradze (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 15 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jukka-Pekka SarasteThe London Philharmonic Orchestra has long enjoyed pairing Sibelius and Rachmaninov, going back to Lorin Maazel’s Sibelius cycle of the 1970s. This concert conducted by one of Finland’s finest maestros, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, repeated the exercise to no real purpose apart from audience appeal; and he has conducted these works in London on numerous occasions.

Saraste and the orchestra produced consummate performances of two Sibelius masterpieces; but with the introduction of a wayward Georgian pianist in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto the evening took on a very peculiar hue.

Alexander ToradzeI have heard many performances of this beautiful concerto. By far the worst has been the flippant flamboyancy of Lang Lang. Alexander Toradze went to the opposite extreme. The opening theme was played sotto voce, as if he was in a drawing room. This reserve, or reticence, was quite deliberate but it underplayed the rhetoric of the music. The first movement cadenza woke everyone up but it was only in the last five minutes of the whole concerto that the necessary fireworks were lit. The effect was of being short changed by a pianist whose technical grasp was obviously secure but whose artistic sense simply did not do justice to the majestic sweep of this most Romantic of all piano concertos.

Another disappointment was to read the programme notes on Sibelius: “there could be heard the lone wolf howling in a far away forest: it was the voice of Jean Sibelius.” No, this is a calumny and Sibelius would have been horrified to read such a description.

Concerning Pohjola’s Daughter, which opened the concert, Sibelius was well aware of his need to build a reputation in Germany. Written in 1906 this marvellous work is an attempt to make an impression in the heartland of European classical music; he had acquired a German publisher; he had written a song-cycle to German texts; he had heard the new music through his various travels. He was determined to enter the inner sanctum of mainstream modernity as exemplified by such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

Pohjola’s Daughter, a work based on a Finnish legend, nevertheless attempts at a brilliance of orchestration and a warmth of utterance to compare with, say, Strauss. The genius of Sibelius allows him to open and close the work with premonitions of darkness heard in the later (1911) Fourth Symphony; both moments are superb and the whole work received a suitably poetic performance by the LPO on, generally, top form.

The Fifth Symphony, in its final 1919 version, brings together the heartfelt struggle, began with the Fourth Symphony’s refusal to bow to public need for a “circus” (as Sibelius perceived the trend in contemporary music at that time) with its conclusion of monumental emotion reached in the finale. Few composers travel such an exhausting journey in their artistic endeavours; hence, with a little such background knowledge, it is perhaps right to agree with composer Peter Paul Nash’s description of the Fifth as being the “masterpiece of the 20th century.”

Saraste’s experience and growing depth of maturity, gained largely through the rendition of the Sibelius cycle (as well as his other many virtues and ventures) allowed the work to open and expand in an entirely natural, evolutionary way. He does not exaggerate, rather he pays attention to detail at the same time as showing a fine grasp of the overall (in this case unique) structure of the symphony. Listening to the sheer sound of this performance (achieved by the composer with an orchestra Beethoven would have easily recognised – one of the many miracles of this work) led the mind to premonitions of Messiaen’s music, equally imbued with a desire to embrace the natural forces of the world that so influence mankind’s behaviour.

The LPO was responsive, notwithstanding a few annoying slips by the brass in the finale. Otherwise all went well, Saraste guiding us through the labyrinth of emotions in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

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