Prom 40 – The Oceanides

Helios – Overture
Symphony No.9 [London premiere]
The Oceanides (Yale Version) [UK premiere]
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52

Christian Lindberg (trombone)

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

While Osmo Vänskä has become a familiar figure at the Proms through his appearances with the BBC Scottish Symphony, his work with the Lahti Symphony is known primarily through a number of recordings in the BIS label – notably an individual and often revelatory Sibelius cycle. So it was good to hear the orchestra in action at this Prom, especially as the account of Nielsen’s Helios Overture, which opened the programme, would be difficult to improve upon.

Hardly a rarity in the concert hall these days, Helios is still a difficult work to bring off. Establishing a steady, inexorable flow at the outset, Vänskä built magnificently to the climactic plateau – after which the central ’Allegro’ section was held together as a taut symphonic totality. The fugato section brought exhilaration without loss of articulation, while the closing pages – moving full circle musically and temporally – faded effortlessly into nothingness.

A performance such as this is inevitably a hard act to follow, and, for all the incidental interest of its music and aesthetic, Kalevi Aho’s Ninth Symphony did not quite justify itself on either count. Now in his mid-fifties, Aho is well established as the most significant living Finnish symphonist, No.12 having been premiered days before. Completed in 1994, the Ninth is subtitled ’Sinfonia Concertante No.2’, and features an extensive trombone part written for Christian Lindberg. A further dimension is the interposing of Renaissance-type music (replete with harpsichord and other appropriate ’trimmings’) onto the post-Shostakovich idiom of Aho’s symphonic fabric, opening-out the larger tonal discourse of the piece, and allowing Lindberg the opportunity to demonstrate his prowess (a mite equivocally on this occasion) on the sackbut – a valve-less ’pre-trombone’.

The brooding initial ’Andante’ amassed motifs and textures resourcefully enough, but the ensuing ’Vivace’ failed to integrate thematic and stylistic elements beyond a provisional alternation. The central ’Adagio’, beginning and ending in ruminative eloquence while building to a powerfully sustained apex, was the highlight of the work – confirming that Aho can sustain symphonic tension to a degree unmatched by many of his Scandinavian forbears. Would that the ’Presto’ finale, lively and eventful, had tied up the threads as securely. Instead, the ’modern’ and ’archaic’ elements were superimposed without a corresponding gain in momentum, while the cadenza – more a vehicle for Lindberg than a necessary part of the overall design – skirted perilously towards kitsch.

Not for the first time with Aho, the overall impression was of a conscientious attempt to compose a genuine symphony at a time when long-range musical argument is rare in whatever medium. What was lacking is a density and purposefulness of thought, without which even the most judiciously geared symphony can only make pretence at being symphonic.

Something of what was lacking could be gleaned from the novelty immediately after the interval. Like the Fifth Symphony, Sibelius’s tone poem The Oceanides went through three successive stages in the search for a definitive version. All three can be heard on the most recent of Vänskä’s Sibelius discs (BIS-CD-1445), and this concert saw the UK premiere of the second, so-called ’Yale version’ – given under the Finnish title Aallottaret. In barely eight minutes, the motivic and textural essence of the piece as we know it is intriguingly laid out; not so much a false start – or continuation – as an attempt at a piece with a strikingly different tonal and harmonic trajectory. Like the 1915 version of the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement, there are possibilities here which Sibelius chose not to pursue, which makes Aallottaret a distinctive, fascinating and, yes, symphonic entity in its own right.

A ’real’ Sibelius symphony ended the concert. Poised between the rhetoric of its predecessors and the rigour of those to come, the transitional nature of the Third is often made an excuse for its equivocal character. Yet, as Vänskä showed in a vigorous and tightly argued opening movement, there’s nothing tentative or provisional about the music itself. Nor, in Vänskä’s hands, is the second movement merely a passive interlude. Indeed, while this ’Andantino’ had a definite underlying ’con moto’, the ’quasi allegretto’ marking was severely qualified – giving the movement a doggedness that might be thought inappropriate for the material. Vänskä sustained it superbly, however, and brought a rapt mystery to the two ’episodes’ which was spellbinding in effect.

The scherzo section of the finale, athletic and only obliquely cumulative, was similarly riveting, and Vänskä unerringly ’found the groove’ going into the chorale theme. Never blazing in its affirmation, the apotheosis set the seal on a performance of deep underlying integrity, and how good to hear Sibelius’s many unusual instrumental balances being brought to the fore and savoured, rather than smoothed over as part of the accompanying texture.

A fitting end to a memorable concert, then, but Vänskä found room for two Sibelius encores: the insouciant Dance Intermezzo (Op.45/2) – with its lightly-worn Spanishness – and the evergreen Valse triste, treading a fine but secure line between pathos and sentimentality.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday 21 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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