Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Helena Juntunen (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 3 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The third instalment of Osmo Vänskä’s Sibelius cycle with the London Philharmonic juxtaposed the composer’s two most contrasted symphonies with his most inimitable work. The nine-minute ‘creation of the world’ scena-cum-tone poem that is “Luonnotar” (1913) received a performance leaving no doubt as to the sheer inventiveness of its material and the degree to which this is abetted by the extreme formal compression: not just a sonata-movement but a veritable symphony in miniature. If not the most all-encompassing of vocalists to have tackled the piece in recent years, Helena Juntunen was equal to the exacting vocal demands, allied to an expressive range that makes this the singular piece it is. With the LPO alive to every nuance, it was as lucid a reading of this now relatively familiar work as one is likely to hear – not least with those final bars catching the breath just as they should.
Following with the Fourth Symphony (1911) made sense. This uncompromising work is no more a crowd-pleaser now than almost a century ago (though pace Andrew Mellor, the Vienna Philharmonic did return to it after the abortive rehearsal of 1912, making an admired recording with Lorin Maazel in 1968), and it helped to have its finest modern exponent at the helm. Even more than in Vänskä’s account with the LPO last year, the sombre opening movement (its pervasive but never literally repeated cello melody eloquently played by Kristina Blaumane) evinced a powerful cumulative force – the ‘quasi adagio’ marking potently observed – that carried though a tensile development on to the sparest of codas. The scherzo was vividly inflected, the ironic yielding to the ominous in music whose initially deadpan intensity was palpably enhanced by the absence of expressive over-emphasis.
The Largo was (rightly) the heart of the matter – its painstaking assembly of motivic means toward melodic ends effected at a tempo whose slowness of motion was impressively sustained, not least in the way that the twin climaxes emerged with such inevitability of purpose before securing a brooding transcendence in the closing pages. A pity that Vänskä does not effect an attacca into the finale, the tonal conceit of its opening bars is made the more effective for so doing. The movement was both a release of accumulated energy and superbly controlled as to its overall momentum; the role of the glockenspiel deftly made (no need for the intrusive reinforcement of tubular bells), the imploding of the main climax was intensified by Vänskä’s refusal to underline its tonal dislocation as the resolution towards which the work has been heading, and whose stoic coda thereby feels the more inevitable.
A performance that once again reinforced the work’s standing among a select handful of symphonic masterpieces. As, too, is the Fifth Symphony (1915/19), for all that the present account took a while to hit its stride. In particular, the opening movement betrayed its fusion of ‘first movement’ and ‘scherzo’ to a surprising degree – Vänskä failing to draw greater intensity from the enhanced repeat of the exposition and, after a powerful transition at the central climax, not quite instilling an inexorable momentum into what follows, though the final pages did not lack for airborne intensity. Another masterful elision between slow movement and intermezzo, the second movement was finely judged as to its wistful demeanour which is not without ‘hidden depths’ that occasionally surface, while the woodwind-playing brought some of the most characterful in the series so far. Brass-playing in the finale was slightly to be found wanting, though here Vänskä gauged the relationship between the pulsating first theme and its magisterial ‘swan-haunted’ successor (the classic instance of the unashamed melodist at one with the all-round innovator) so it took on the proportions of a movement far larger than its nine minutes suggest. Nor did the peroration overwhelm those six closing chords with which the composer was finally able to encapsulate the tonal trajectory of the whole work. Not the highlight of the series, then, but hardly a failure in one of such formidable standards thus far.