The Wood Nymph, Op.15
Six Humoresques, Opp.87 & 89
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Henning Kraggerud (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 27 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Although Osmo Vänskä has become synonymous with Sibelius’s music since his recordings of the orchestral works began appearing in the early 1990s, performances in London have been intermittent – mainly through visits to the Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra or occasional concerts with the BBC Symphony and, more recently, London Philharmonic orchestras. Thus the news that Vänskä and the LPO were to undertake a complete symphony cycle as part of the 2009/10 season was all the more welcome, not least in that it was taking place over the concentrated span of a fortnight (would that the BBCSO had been able to do likewise with its ongoing Martinů cycle) and included a number of lesser-known pieces by a composer whose standing is considerably less than that of Mahler or Shostakovich who presently dominate twentieth-century symphonism in the minds of the concert-going public.
Vänskä has been responsible for restoring several forgotten or withdrawn Sibelius works to general circulation, not the least of which being the tone-poem The Wood Nymph. Written during 1894 and early 1895, when the composer was grappling with opera plans as well as shaking-off the impact of Wagner, it stands with the Lemminkäinen Legends as testament to Sibelius’s wresting of abstract drama from potentially operatic material. Whether The Wood Nymph derived directly from such a source is uncertain, but this would explain the extreme diversity of its ideas and the almost jarring nature of their juxtaposition; something Vänskä seems ever keener to accentuate in terms of the silences that mark off each main section. In this performance, the noble opening theme had the right ‘knightly’ character and if the proto-minimalist passage that follows threatened to run away with itself, momentum here and in the fateful closing stage was kept on a tight rein. Between them, the ‘love’ music had a glowing fervency – at least as cellist Susanne Beer characterised her lengthy solo in which, not for the only time in this piece, the presence of voices seemed almost tangible.
While the Six Humoresques, written during 1917 and 1918 between the second and final versions of the Fifth Symphony, have never been unavailable as such, their function has tended to be as ‘fillers’ to recordings of the Violin Concerto or as encores after a performance of that work. Yet they work well as an integral set (Sibelius’s decision to publish them as groups of two and four pieces was most likely a ruse to maximise income from his publisher in straightened times), having sufficient variety of mood and tempo to throw their subtle contrasts into relief as the sequence unfolds. It helped that Henning Kraggerud was alive to their understated though exacting technical demands – his nuanced phrasing enabling the solo line to merge into and out of the spare orchestral accompaniment with required poise. The outcome was music ‘light’ in expressive effect rather than mere designation.
The First Symphony (1899) has been part of the orchestral repertoire from the outset, yet here again Vänskä has brought a new perspective to a work easy to interpret in terms of its influences – notably that of Tchaikovsky. After a pensive but not unduly sombre introduction – limpidly rendered by clarinettist Robert Hill – the first movement proceeded as the uninhibited allegro Sibelius apparently intended and which editorial intervention modified accordingly. Risky if ensemble is not equal to the challenge, but the LPO rose to it superbly in music whose often overbearing rhetoric evinced a very Classical energy. The slow movement was even finer – Vänskä drawing together its distinctive yet disparate ideas so that formal follow-through was never in doubt; not least in a fugato which, less hectic than is often the case, led into the climactic return of the main theme with powerful inevitability.
Often dismissed as a epigone of Borodin, the scherzo had a bracing drive and rhythmic panache that was ideally complemented by the trio – its generous sentiment never unduly twee as Vänskä hears it. The finale presents problems of cohesion that can seem insurmountable, but here again its episodic construction unfolded with a momentum maintained through astute alternation of headlong activity and heart-on-sleeve emotion, building to an apotheosis whose histrionics were (rightly) kept at arm’s length. Others have favoured more overt indulgence here, but Vänskä’s insistence on rendering the final pages as the tragic outcome to which the whole work has been leading was its own justification. Sibelius was to streamline his symphonic thinking immeasurably, but this first stage of the journey left no doubt as to his credentials in the genre – at least as Vänskä was at pains to remind listeners.