Jukka-Pekka Saraste Conducts Kurtág, Bartok, and Sibelius’s Two Last Symphonies.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartok, Kurtág and Sibelius: Hiromi Kikuchi (violin), Ken Hakii (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 16.12.2011 (CG)

Bartok: Dance Suite (1923)
György Kurtág: Concertante Op.42 (2002 -3) UK premiere
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor Op.104 (1923)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major Op.105 (1924)

This was the third in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s series featuring works by Sibelius including the seven symphonies; we had Symphony No. 3 back in October and a selection of Sibelius’s songs and his incidental music for Belshazzar’s Feast last week. Of course the BBC programme planners would never do anything as obvious as playing Sibelius’s symphonies in the order he composed them, which seems more than a little perverse; how interesting and educational it is to witness the development of this infinitely fascinating symphonist from one to the next. A number of different conductors will be taking part; after the opening concert, it was difficult to imagine performances more sympathetic than Sakari Oramo’s of the Third, but tonight we had Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who is one of the triumvirate of dedicated Finnish Sibelians along with Osmo Vänskä and Esa-Pekka Salonen, all of whom studied in the same class in Helsinki and are now in their 50’s. Saraste was making a welcome return to the BBC Symphony, having been their Principal Guest Conductor from 2002-2005.

The first half was, for some reason, Hungarian. Bartok’s Dance Suite, interestingly composed at the same time as Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony, is one of his most immediately attractive orchestral works, drawing on Hungarian, Romanian and North African folk music to great effect, with the various sections being connected by a returning theme in changing guises. The brilliance of Bartok’s colourful orchestration came over well in the BBC SO’s performance, and the constantly varying tempi, a vital ingredient, were all fluently handled. There was plenty of rhythmic zap as well as some beautifully idiomatic solos, and it was all highly enjoyable – just the thing on this cold December evening!

The two major successors to Bartok in Hungary are Ligeti and György Kurtág, whose Concertante was next on the agenda. Kurtág won the 2006 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition with this work, which has solo parts for violin and viola with a very large orchestra. The soloists tonight have been playing the work around the world since the first performance in 2003 and have also recorded it. The programme note waffled about Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and references to Wagner and Magyar music, but if I was supposed to recognize any of these I’m afraid I failed miserably. In fact I found this work altogether perplexing; the soloists are not soloists in the conventional sense, and their contributions often seemed inconsequential or inaudible. The music is also extremely discontinuous; at worst it felt like a random series of sounds and gestures, which although frequently interesting in themselves, were largely disconnected. There are welcome periods of greater energy, and some violent outbursts too, but overall this doesn’t make for coherent, let alone pleasant, listening. You may say there’s absolutely nothing wrong in that in itself, of course, but there’s a point at which incomprehension gets the better of me and I must admit that I was pretty relieved when it was all over. Awful to say this, when the soloists, conductor and orchestra have worked their socks off – but maybe I’ve spent too many hours trying hard to appreciate things I instinctively just don’t like at all. I certainly prefer my Kurtág in his more typically shorter, more concise mode, and I found myself asking yet again why the BBC favours so many contemporary composers from abroad rather than the host of home-grown composers desperate for an airing.

It was brave to place the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies of Sibelius next door to one another. These very different works could have benefitted from this, one might have thought, but in reality they did not. Why? Although each is short by major symphonic standards, each is complete in itself and benefits from a period of reflection afterwards. So we could wander off into the night with the magnificent Seventh ringing in our ears, but the more delicate and less overtly dramatic Sixth suffered. Technically, these were both assured, efficient performances; I wouldn’t argue with the tempi chosen for any part of the Sixth, but somehow the music refused to spring into life in the way it can, and too much of it felt – well – efficient. Despite some fine work from the BBC symphony Orchestra, I found myself asking where was the poetry? And although there was plenty of rhythmic verve in the scherzo and the last movement, didn’t things feel somewhat briskly mechanical rather than genuinely spirited? And while I have come to love this symphony, I also recognize that it’s a special case, needing especially sensitive treatment and programming; placing it just before the interval would have worked better.

The Seventh was far more successful. Saraste maintained a tight grip on the formal shape, managing all the difficult tempo changes brilliantly. There was a satisfying inevitability to the unfolding of the drama, the emotionally charged string passages near the beginning pulling us forward irrepressibly towards the first great trombone solo, expertly judged by Helen Vollam; the way she rose above the orchestra with no semblance of force was just perfect. And I marvelled all over again at the astonishingly inspired orchestration that Sibelius dreamed up here; just one lone trombone against the whole orchestra – and yet you hear it clearly and gloriously. The remaining sections flowed effortlessly; the stormy sections were genuinely thrilling, with the brass and horns glowing in the winter sunshine, and the woodwind sparkling like freshly fallen snowflakes. I could have wished for a greater sense of heartbreak in the final pages, but nevertheless, Saraste’s interpretation was absolutely justifiable and it was impossible to leave without this, one of the very greatest of all symphonies, having made its mark yet again. Marvellous!

Christopher Gunning