Heatwave Sibelius at the BBC Proms

18/08/2015

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Prom 42: Sibelius & Finnissy: Julian Rachlin (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.8.2015 (RB)

Sibelius – Symphony No. 3
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Michael Finnissy – Janne (World premiere)
Sibelius – Symphony No. 4

The audience basked in unSibelian warmth for the second BBC Prom concert this season to celebrate Sibelius 150. On the other hand this Mediterranean heat might have been fitting had the concert included The Oceanides and the Second Symphony; maybe even Nightride and Sunrise. As it was there was a far Northern orchestra, an Israeli-born conductor, a Lithuanian violinist and some cool-inducing music. Close to a full house was in attendance – certainly so far as the promenade enclosure area was concerned – almost a swarm!

We started with what I have always thought of as the least played of all Sibelius’s symphonies: No. 3. With violins split left and right – as they were all evening – the performance was one of chiselled definition and with presentiments of the exploratory sonorities of the music for The Tempest and the Fourth Symphony. A cool second movement came in the form of a tender caress with lots of delightfully studied air around the notes. The finale with its ‘straight’ up-and-down Finlandia-style hymn registered strongly. Thus ended a work dedicated to Sir Granville Bantock – among Sibelius’s earliest champions in the UK.

At the heart of the Violin Concerto was Julian Rachlin who had given a stunning performance on disc as part of a Sony cycle with the Pittsburgh Orchestra and Lorin Maazel in 1992. He is a rare visitor and has recorded very little. In the vast expanses of the hall he and the orchestra magically explored the space between whisper and silence. Rachlin has a breathlessly steady tone production with no unwonted harshness. Volkov’s fidelity to the enterprise was reflected in a vernier-calibrated balance between solo and orchestra. Almost never was the solo line obscured. Rachlin may not have a ‘big voice’ but within his satisfying span there is a very moving, exciting and passionate quality which again surfaces in the finale. Outstandingly beautiful was the stratospherically whistled melody in that movement which parallels similar magical writing in the Humoresques. I did not catch the name of the spectacular solo encore Rachlin played after the fourth ‘curtain call’ but it was welcome.

After the intermission came the world premiere of Finnissy’s BBC commission. I found none of the claimed “”real connection with politics, society and culture” but this is a complex work and mostly not too inaccessible. Voices encountered along the way include the fine lyrical weave of late Tippett, lucent woodwind writing and a host of Sibelian allusions often clouded and hinted: echoes of Tuonela, some chug and chatter ostinatos, trombone statements linked with the Seventh Symphony, xylophone outbursts referencing the Fourth Symphony and, towards the close, a sweetly ‘sung’ solo violin. For me the music came across as something of a dream journey with one passage of furious distress recalling the Polish experimentalists of the 1960s. The composer after a while came forward to acknowledge the applause, kissed the leader and hugged the conductor. This was a work that had one hanging on every twist and turn but which on this single acquaintance did not move me.

I know that Finnissy likes a play on words. So too perhaps does the BBC in commissioning a Finnish-themed work from a Finnissy.

The evening closed with the Fourth Symphony in a performance that did not do any romantic violence to the concept. Volkov brought to it qualities similar to those already mobilised for the Third. He delivered a clean and controlled reading: philosophical, reflective and in touch with stasis. In the two middle movements I was surprised by what I heard as references to birdsong – often sorrowful – cousins to The Swan of Tuonela. That had never hit me before. The French horns whether stopped, with that metallic croak, or open-bored, were glorious. They excelled throughout whether prominent as a group or over miraculous pizzicato writing for the strings.

Quite an evening and generously timed too.

A word or two for the programme book. It is fresh in approach with informative and even courageous writing. The design is pleasing and even the illustrations are admirably chosen and presented. I loved the Russian Kalevala illustration and the von Vecsey photo. The “Previously at the Proms …”  and “Further listening ….” panels are well worth your time. Ian Pace’s Finnissy profile stimulated and informed. I cheered when I read his comment that the experience of hearing Janne might ‘also confound what I write here!’ More from Mr Pace please.

Rob Barnett

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