The BBC Symphony Orchestra Launches Its Sibelius Symphony Cycle.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius: Anu Komsi (soprano),  BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 28.10.2011 (CG)

Bax: Tintagel (1917-19)
Kaija Saariaho: Leino Songs (UK première) (2002-7: rev. 2010)
Sibelius: Luonnotar Op 70 (1910-13)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C major Op 52 (1904-7)

This was the first of a series of concerts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra featuring the complete symphonies of Sibelius, but the curtain raiser was Bax’s Tintagel, and I must say the warmth and opulence of Bax’s orchestration was particularly welcome on this chilly October night. Although in London’s Barbican, here we were at the seaside, reveling in Bax’s most popular piece with salt in the air and wind in our hair, delighting in images of Tintagel’s ruined castle and its associations with the Knights of the Round Table. What a fine piece Tintagel is; a quite wonderful tune, steadily unfolding drama, and a totally satisfying formal shape made of music which always develops in episodes, one leading quite naturally to the next. And if one had any doubts that a Finn would understand this peculiarly British piece, they were assuaged completely. It was a beautifully formed, idiomatic performance by Sakari Oramo, full of colour and with all the minute tempo variations demanded by the music. I enjoyed it immensely.

Then we headed north. Although now a resident of Paris, Kaija Saariaho quite definitely retains Finnish roots, and in her Leino Songs, receiving their UK première, paints bleak pictures redolent of her birthplace and its culture. Eino Leino (1878-1926) is one of Finland’s most important writers, and Saariaho has worked with his poetry before. For her, his language has an appealing combination of mystery, melancholy, intimacy and distance – and if there’s also something rather French about this piece, it’s in the quasi-impressionistic orchestral tone colours she employs and the extreme fastidiousness which is a hallmark of her music generally. And yet, I come back to the word bleak; but it’s not a cold, barren bleakness, for this is very human music too, with a warm heart beating within. Indeed the second of the four songs is called The Heart, and becomes wild and passionate, contrasting with songs one, three and four (Looking at you, Peace, and Evening Prayer) which are generally quieter and more meditative. The vocal lines are expressive, beautifully set against the orchestra, and it’s all tremendously imaginative. The soprano Anu Komsi, Nordically blond and here bedecked in various shades of blue-green, has worked with her husband, Sakari Oramo, a lot and it shows; their collaboration, I would say, was supremely sensitive, and the contribution by the BBC SO no less so. Miss Komsi and Sakari Oramo have recorded these songs on a newly-issued Ondine CD (ODE 1173-2)

A brief trip outside during the interval confirmed that the night was growing colder, and so Sibelius’s Luonnotar, for soprano and orchestra, seemed appropriate once safely inside once more. This music is as Sibelian as it gets – so many hallmarks are there! The tremolo strings at the start, fluttering woodwind, timpani rolls, and a massively stormy climax. “A warm heart in a cold scene” is how a friend epitomised Sibelius, and that’s what you get here. The vocal part amounts to a recitative-like rendition of part of the Kalevala, which is Finland’s national epic poem; it is extremely expressive, but always very much to the point. Sibelius rarely wasted notes, and in this piece there are no exceptions to that principle. Anu Komsi entered fully into the part, and Oramo was also clearly totally in his element.

Incidentally, Sibelius originally described this as a tone poem in 1906, so it must have developed into its ultimate form over time. At any rate, it was first performed in Gloucester in 1913 at the Three Choirs Festival – which, bearing in mind the nature of the piece, struck me as quite extraordinary.

Finally, more Sibelius in the shape of one of his least performed symphonies – the Third. Coming after the first two, with their rich romanticism and hefty tunes, this one came as a shock; it is relatively bare and smaller in its scale and orchestration. What was Sibelius up to? It seems clear, now, that he was at a crossroads – he needed to develop the symphony as a form, and in doing so, needed to pare things down and investigate some earlier models. Thus, the first movement has even been compared to Beethoven’s work, and some have called this Sibelius’s Classical symphony. Of course, it’s totally Sibelius even so. The first movement needs bags of energy in performance and a strict control over the tempi of the various ingredients. Oramo and the BBC SO got it right, and there were some thrilling moments. The second movement, a kind of nocturne with a sort of rondo structure, is even smaller in scale than the first – it has no trumpets or trombones, for instance – so it’s Sibelius pared down even more closely to the bone. So far so good, but in the last movement things always go awry for me – there’s something not quite right about the structure here, and for me Sibelius arrives in the home key of C major far too early and then proceeds to bang on in it for far too long. Oramo and the BBC SO did their very best with it, but it didn’t work, not that anyone else in the audience might have been aware of it. Oramo received exceptionally warm applause, and the orchestra declined to take it, the musicians preferring to clap the conductor they had obviously absolutely loved working with.

Christopher Gunning