Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra

Défraîchir [World premiere]
Violin Concerto, Op.15
The Oceanides, Op.73
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

James Lee (violin)

RCM Symphony Orchestra
Robin O’Neill

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 28 June, 2007
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

This end-of-term concert was billed as a tribute to Sibelius in the year of the 50th-anniversary of his death. It was appropriate to perform a premiere by a Royal College of Music postgraduate who professes admiration for the great Finnish symphonist, yet remaining wholly independent in choice of compositional style.

Claes Biehl’s Défraîchir is described as “the gradual deconstruction of a musical utopia” and takes as its lead the music of the Post-Spectral Era, presumably referring to the France-based school of so-called ‘spectralists’ (who, incidentally also admire Sibelius to a man!).

Biehl’s piece never outstayed its 10 minutes duration and held the attention throughout by a judicial use of orchestral timbres; at times quiet and lyrical, at others stormy and dramatic. Défraîchir should establish its place as a work honoured by its influences yet possessing its own integrity.

The RCM Symphony Orchestra, representing the best players from this crop of students, played this, at times, difficult work with enthusiasm and accuracy under the clear beat of Robin O’Neill.

Britten’s Violin Concerto was disconnected to the evening’s Sibelian theme, written in 1939 for an eventual American premiere. It was only much later, in the early 1960s, that Britten acknowledged the stature of Sibelius. The violinist was James Lee, already a well-travelled virtuoso, but still studying at the College where he holds a Foundation Scholarship. He possesses a winning tone and utterly secure intonation and invested this powerful work, one of Britten’s finest, with both authority and true advocacy. The lead from the cadenza into the final passacaglia shows Britten to be fully engaged with the humanity around him (a characteristic that often deserted him later in life) and this performance was touching in the extreme. Lee received keen support from the orchestra, well guided by O’Neill.

This conductor seems to have an affinity with Sibelius, writing a perceptive programme note on The Oceanides, a work once described by Sir Thomas Beecham as bring “very odd”! He went on to record it at the composer’s request. To the uninitiated it still preserves a sense of inexplicability on first hearing (the pianist Jonathan Powell relates how it took fifteen consecutive hearings before the penny dropped) but mature Sibelius never displays its qualities easily).

O’Neill takes a spacious view of this utterly characteristic work and also of the Seventh Symphony. The opening of the tone poem produced just the right sense of menace and anxiety that may or may not be what the composer intended but what, in fact, he produced in his music. The Oceanides is an unsettling work, moving constantly from a feeling of repose to almost violent agitation. O’Neill’s breadth of approach allied this seascape with the warmer climes of the Mediterranean rather than the chillier waters of the Nordic region. The advantage was that the final tempest was a genuine eruption from what preceded it and thus gained in power and tension. Sibelius never displayed much happiness in his music and the very end of this wonderful work leaves the listener in a state of suspended animation: not a nice feeling at all.

Nor is there much solace in the mighty Seventh Symphony. True the string threnody contains a purity of utterance rare in music of any age but the three periods of great turbulence, each heralded by a sublime trombone theme, announce a soul deeply troubled. O’Neill coaxed wonderful playing from the orchestra with the strings showing great strength of purpose throughout. He obtained a rock-like stability to the tonal structure that underpins the disturbances, thereby creating a symphonic statement both powerful and concise.

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