Total Immersion: Sibelius the Storyteller – BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 9 October, 2022
Venue: Barbican Hall & Milton Court, London

A day for fans of Finland – the music of Sibelius, Finland’s bard, led by Sakari Oramo, the BBCSO’s Finnish chief conductor. The BBC has kept going with its Total Immersion days – they used to be Immersion weekends – most often with modern composers. Here it was an established composer, familiar through his big symphonic work, but less well known for his songs, choral works and his sequence of wonderful tone poems, many of them based on the stories related in the Kalevala, the compendium of  Finnish myth and folk-lore printed in the nineteenth century, along with many settings of Finland’s national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77), who, as with the Kalevala, played a big part in Finnish nationalism, a movement Sibelius extended into the twentieth century in his music. Hence the title Sibelius the Storyteller, four concerts each around 75 minutes duration, marking the music of a composer who more or less stopped composing about 30 years before his death in 1957 (just a year before another great symphonist Ralph Vaughan Williams died).

The first event, in Milton Court, was a song recital fielded by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – with narrators, two singers, a piano trio and two more pianists in songs from the Opp.13, 17 and 90 sets, along with two melodramas, ‘Nights of Jealousy’ (1893) and the late ‘A Lonely Ski-trail’ (1925), both Sibelius rarities. Runeberg’s Swedish text of the first (fluently translated by the day’s curator Daniel Grimley) makes it clear that the reciter is male, briefly haunted by the vocalise of a soprano (presumably his lover), but perhaps I have missed a point. A passionate introduction for piano trio evoked Brahms and Fauré, then as the reciter took over, so did the sort of flexible stasis that Sibelius would use in bigger works, such as Tapiola, to memorable effect. In ‘A Lonely Ski-trail’, the reciter (Aina Miyagi Magnell again) ruminates on isolation, rather like Hans Castorp on his ski-trail in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It’s a pity that we don’t hear melodramas much these days, they could be irresistibly idiosyncratic and romantic. Earlier the Swiss baritone Felix Gygli had showed of his expressive range and intensity in three of the Op.13 songs, deftly underpinned by Thomas Jesty’s accompaniment – Gygli’e voice and stage presence are impressive. The soprano Caroline Bourg and pianist Edward Picton-Turbervill were very persuasive in ‘The North’ (from the Op.90 Runeberg Songs), a melancholy vision of migrating swans.

Perhaps it was my ears, but the Milton Court amplification didn’t do much for the two word-swallowing reciters, lots of mood-setting stuff about lakes and forests, solitude and melancholy within, frail humanity on the edge of the elements, along with spoken translations of the texts were lost, and, crucially, there were no surtitles. The Sibelius day was being recorded for broadcast on November 20, rendering surtitles redundant. So much for storytelling, and it bore out a programme note lament about the increasing and irreversible passivity of how we listen to – or consume – music. And if musicians need light to perform, why can’t their audience have light to listen, rather than being plunged into near total darkness, as is more and more the custom now. The same narration problems applied to the BBC Singers’ Milton Court recital of choruses, conducted by Owain Park, with a selection from the Part-Songs Op.18 and other choir songs by Sibelius’s contemporaries Leevi Madetoja and Toivi Kuula, the latter’s three songs for choir from his Op.11 about infant mortality and a Buddhist approach to death.

There were two BBCSO concerts over in the Barbican, both introduced with ideal clarity by the Icelandic-American actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (an elemental presence in the unmissable Icelandic television police dramas Trapped and Entrapped, both shown on BBC4). The afternoon concert included superb performances of En saga, plunging headlong into the saga’s elemental mysteries via Sibelius’s characteristic sheen of strings and lively woodwind writing; a rare outing for The Bard, Op. 64, about an old man who dies playing his lyre, here a harp part as distinctive in its style as Britten’s and beautifully played; and an only slightly less rare performance of Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 that effortlessly showed off Sibelius’s luminous, idiosyncratic scoring.

The last concert of the day started with a stupendous performance of Night Rise and Sunrise, probably the best orchestral sunrise ever and played in a way that honoured all the vivid instrumental detail. The BBCSO and Oramo were then joined by the soprano Anu Komsi, who made an unforgettable entrance with an extraordinary and unscripted outpouring of keening ululations, before launching into ‘The Echo Nymph’ (from Op.72) and ‘Sunrise’ (from Op.37). Komsi has an intense presence that dramatises everything she sang, particularly the case in Luonnotar, Op.70, with its graphic, out-of-body cries from the soprano and some more wonderful harp writing. There could not have been a more suitable piece to end with than Tapiola, Op.112, Sibelius’s last big score from 1926, Oramo and the BBCSO delivering a distinguished reading that embraced everything from precisely geared orchestration to Sibelius’s uncanny accuracy in creating atmosphere and tension. The revelation of the forest god Tapio was properly terrifying, then, after those neutral, quiet major chords bring it and the Immersion Day to a close, the rest was silence.

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