Osmo Vänskä Concludes the Sibelius Symphony Cycle at the BBC Proms

18/08/2015

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 Prom 43: Sibelius: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8.2015 (RB)

Sibelius – Symphony No 5 in E-flat major
Sibelius – Symphony No 6 in D minor
Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major

On three consecutive nights the Proms have marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius by presenting all of his symphonies. The BBC Sccotish SO gave the first two symphonies in Prom 40 (review) and Third and Fourth in Prom 42. Tonight the BBC Symphony Orchestra completed the cycle.

Osmo Vänskä, whose Lahti Sibelius recordings for Bis rule many a roost (review), was tonight’s conductor. Last night it had been Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish. In terms of podium style the difference could hardly have been more categoric. Volkov was understated, precise and given to fine gestures. Vänskä is demonstrative, overtly energetic, not quite Bernstein’s caricaturing but grandiloquent – the epitome of communicative eloquence in ‘speaking’ to the orchestra and the audience. At one point in the Seventh Symphony he could be seen pointing imperiously with one finger held high and his arm at full upwards extension. The next moment he was cozening quiet dynamics with a flat left hand held down one foot off the stage. There’s nothing of Boult’s classic ‘less is more’ about this conductor. By the way I intend this to be purely descriptive; nothing more.

The three symphonies went extremely well and were full of character. The Fifth filled the first half of a concert where the auditorium was even more packed than for Volkov last night. Attention to the extremes of dynamic was again notable. In the finale for instance there was one moment where I could see the actions of the violin section, the bows and shoulders moving, but I could not hear anything for a second or so – everyone was craning forward to catch the dynamic gradient. The playing throughout the evening was impressive apart from some woodwind cussedness at the very start of No. 5. Brass, as expected, distinguished itself complete with whooping horns. Huge applause greeted the end of No. 5.

The Sixth’s outer movements are miraculously long lyric paragraphs seemingly with no need for connection between ideas – the movements run as if a single unfolding thought. This contrasts with the neatly engineered episodes of the Fifth. The strong rhythmic iterations of the Sixth were driven forward with a pleasing sense of top-dead-centre for each cell. As much of a Cinderella as the Third, this symphony was received more modestly. It was also the occasion for the conductor to come back the second time for the audience. He came only as far as the back seats of the orchestra and quickly gestured to the audience to applaud its members and then very rapidly backed down the gangway without going anywhere near the podium; a generous gesture I have not see before.

The Seventh was treated to an evolutionary and epic Brucknerian performance; we know that Vänskä has form with that composer. This lacked the hyper-drive electricity of Mravinsky’s 1965 recording but gave the score more time and to telling effect.

I look forward to another Finn, Sakari Oramo, directing En Saga and Kullervo at Prom 58 on 29 August..

Rob Barnett

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