The Rest is Noise – Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts the London Philharmonic – Debussy’s Ibéria & Sibelius’s Violin Concerto – with Henning Kraggerud – and Fourth Symphony

Images pour orchestre – II: Ibéria
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63

Henning Kraggerud (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This was a depressing evening on two counts. The ordering did the main work, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony – some would say his greatest achievement – few favours by placing it last. This Symphony is always a hard sell, even to those of us who love it, but placing it last ensured that the evening ended on a downer. And by subdividing the beat at unnecessary moments, as well as a reluctance to give a clear lead when it really mattered, Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s conducting reminded of the Church of England prayer: “Oh Lord, we have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have not done those things which we should have done.”

Jukka-Pekka SarasteDebussy’s ‘Ibéria’ emerged brittle and driven, all rhythm and no colour. Of course, the exuberant rhythms of the outer movements are an essential ingredient of this music but so too is flexibility and refined orchestral hues. The pedestrian account of the central tableau, ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ was thrown into relief by one or two magical contributions, notably Sue Bohling’s subtle cor anglais, but for the most part it was simply too loud, and the finale, ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ was aggressive and coarse, failing to bring any sense of culmination or joyous release.

Henning KraggerudFar better was Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Henning Kraggerud, Norway’s most notable violinist and a one-time student of the great Camilla Wicks whose recordings of this work set a benchmark, plays this music to the manner born, warm and secure, even in the terrifyingly exposed first-movement cadenza, where he rightly took his time. Kraggerud plays a Guarneri del Gesù and, I believe, uses Ole Bull’s only-existing bow, which is longer than the norm. This was a ripe and romantic account – entirely appropriate for the youthful composer. Only in the finale, which the composer described as a danse macabre, did his intonation occasionally falter, not helped by an over-swift tempo which militated against clear articulation. It was though fully alive, totally engaged and with an exciting dash to the finishing post. There was an unannounced encore, what sounded like an arrangement for violin and orchestra of a Nordic song.

Saraste’s account of Sibelius 4 opened promisingly – dark double basses rocking pensively at the outset – but then too often failed to sort out the wood from the trees. This was particularly noticeable in the two quicker movements (the second and fourth) during which there was a consistent tendency to overdo tempo fluctuations; just because a passage is marked tranquillo it doesn’t mean that the music has to lose all impetus. This was particularly damaging in the finale if momentum is to be fully maintained until that strange moment of dissolution. How ironic that Sibelius and Mahler in their very different ways should – contemporaneously – close their respective Fourth and Ninth symphonies with an almost cinematic dissolve. Elsewhere there were some fine individual contributions, notably the trailing tendrils of Sue Thomas’s flute and the Brucknerian gravitas of the horn quartet in the Largo, but too often Saraste’s direction failed to pick up on significant moments, the trombones’ clinching role at the slow movement’s climax or the horns fp slap across the face which ushers in the finale’s strange non-resolution. Sadly this was a performance which was unlikely to win new friends for this wonderful but problematic work.

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