Lemminkaïnen Legends, Op.22 – No.3: The Swan of Tuonela
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Jack Liebeck (violin)
Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 11 February, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Sibelius is not celebrating any anniversaries this year, unlike the birthday-boys, both recent and this year – Chopin, Liszt and the inescapable Mahler. So on this evening there was this Sibelius concert at St John’s and two further major works of his were included in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Barbican Hall concert. London audiences seem, therefore, to have a genuine appetite for the rigours, joys and tribulations from the pen of Jean Sibelius.
The three works in this programme represent the more ‘popular’ Sibelius, which is not to say that each fails to display many, if not all, of Sibelius’s (sometimes) mysterious qualities as a composer. In their own way each piece signposts Sibelius’s contribution to music in the 20th-century; an evocative tone poem, the most popular of all that century’s violin concertos (as measured by the number of recordings, over 200 to date!) and an inspiring symphony, the most popular of Sibelius’s seven.
Of the three works here played by Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra, ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ (the third of the Lemminkaïnen Legends) is the out and out masterpiece with not a redundant note, Sibelius – post-Wagner – conjuring dark colours and a sense of foreboding that stress his individuality. Starting with a beautifully hushed sound this performance combined a sense of stasis with a living, breathing organism throwing off thematic sparks into the dark night. The cor anglais soloist, Sarah Webster, was no shrinking violet, declaiming the Swan’s song with firm tone and strong resolution.
Sibelius’s Violin Concerto can accommodate many different views – from a somewhat glacial approach to one fused with romantic warmth. Jack Liebeck was free from affectation, impressing with strength of timbre and supported by an impassioned accompaniment. The velocity of the first movement’s coda would have blown away any pesky polar-bears blocking the path. A suitably sumptuous slow movement was followed by a reappearance of the bears as famously described (by Tovey) for dancing a polonaise, the chosen tempo ignoring Sibelius’s instruction ‘not too fast’ (he apparently changed his mind later in life to ‘fast as you like’ – perhaps Liebeck knew this!). We heard more of a danse macabre for startled gazelles. This was a thrilling performance that caught the imagination from the very first bar.
The Second Symphony is often heard (particularly in Finland) as a rousing call-to-arms – by a proud though subjugated Finnish people under the Tsarist yoke. Sibelius always denied this connection and a study of the composer’s life at the time of composition shows him close to a nervous breakdown because of the sudden illness of a daughter in Italy. Such a sense of anxiety is surely enshrined throughout the work; the first movement winding up the tension leading to tremendous climaxes and almost post-coital releases; the slow movement is a premonition of death; the scherzo brings a mad rush through a glass darkly and the valedictory finale, in true Beethovenian manner, offers salvation to a bruised and troubled spirit. Adam Johnson’s spacious first movement followed immediately by a speedy slow movement is diametrically different to the way I hear this music in my bones but the conviction with which he imbued the whole work won me over with a glow of spiritual well-being.