LPO/Vänskä – Miraculous Logic: The Music of Jean Sibelius (2)

Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Orchestral Songs – Autumn Evening, Op.38/1; The First Kiss, Op.37/1 [orch. Nils-Eric Fougstedt]; The Girl came from her Lover’s Tryst, Op.37/5 [orch. Ernest Pingould]; Tennis at Trianon, Op.36/3 [orch. Ernest Pingould]; Arioso, Op.3; Duke Magnus, Op.57/6; Was It a Dream, Op.37/4 [orch. Simon Pergament-Parmet]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Helena Juntunen (soprano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Osmo VänskäThe second instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s Sibelius cycle with the London Philharmonic continued with two symphonies both seen, in different ways and at different times, transitional. That the Second Symphony (1901) used to be perceived as the culmination of the composer’s ‘nationalist’ period stems from its expressive scale and impact, but the formal processes are already well in advance of its predecessor: rather it is the conflict between these factors that makes this a work in transition.

Vänskä seemed to recognize this with an opening movement that was astutely understated, almost preludial, in its relation to the work as a whole. A sense of the music evolving as it progresses was keenly in evidence, though there was little in its relative swiftness to indicate what was to follow. The slow movement is problematic in that its discursiveness can seem out of context – a throwback to the overtly descriptive tone poems (indeed, the piece had started out thus), than part of a rigorous symphonic whole. Undeniably expansive though far from indulgent as Vänskä hears it, the music’s pivoting between the implacable and the consoling was made to build upon that of what went before while making possible what was to come. There followed a fast but never frenetic scherzo, relaxing unerringly for its songful trio, and with an incisive transition into the finale: Sibelius’s most derided symphonic movement, it unfolded with absolute sureness between its melodic immediacy and the need to bring the symphonic process to its culmination. This was most apparent in the coda – long rendered as a rhetorical outpouring that the present era distrusts, it was interpreted here as an active part of that greater process: as much music of ‘becoming’ as is the symphony as a whole.

In which sense it would have been worth having the work in the first half of this concert, thereby preserving the chronological aspect of this cycle. One in which, moreover, the Third Symphony (1907) seemed more completely an ‘achieved’ conception than is often the case. Certainly there was little in the robust vigour of its first movement – never too fast so the more remote asides in its central development or the solemnity of its coda failed to register – to suggest other than that this was the reformulation of the ‘Classical’ symphony made good. The slow movement, too, was realised such that its tendency towards an intermezzo was paralleled by that between the folk-like directness of its main theme and introspection of its intervening episodes. Unlike the previous symphonies, Sibelius reserves his formal innovation for the finale – the restless inquiry of whose ‘scherzo’, as tense as it was mysterious here, led unerringly into a ‘finale’ whose chorale-like theme was made the basis of a powerful but, once again, integral peroration. A fine performance in which the occasional rough-edges from the strings was more than outweighed by the poise and eloquence of the woodwind.

Between the symphonies came a selection of songs – worthwhile in that Sibelius’s vital contribution to the genre, mostly to poems in Swedish (his first language), continues to be neglected outside Nordic countries. Sibelius himself harboured doubts as to the effectiveness of their orchestral incarnations, but few would surely object to the sombre radiance of “Autumn Evening” (1903), otherworldly aura of “Duke Magnus” (1909) or wistfully plaintive “Arioso” (1910) – to take the three he himself orchestrated. Of the remainder, “The First Kiss” (1900) was suitably seductive in the hands of Nils-Erik Fougstedt, with Ernest Pingoud no less adept in his handling of the anguish of “The Girl came from her Lover’s Tryst” (1901) or the deceptively naïve “Tennis at Trianon” (1899) with its unexpected social comment, but Simon Pergament-Parmet makes of “Was It a Dream?” (1902) something too overtly sentimental. No matter – this was an appealing and not unrepresentative selection, in which Helena Juntunen was alive to the expressive shades and ambiguities that mark Sibelius as a song composer of distinction. Those among the audience previously unfamiliar with them could not have had a better introduction.

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