United Kingdom Sibelius: Lahti Symphony Orchestra/ Okko Kamu (conductor), Elina Vähälä (violin), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.1.2011 (CT)
Karelia Suite Op. 11
Violin Concerto in D Minor Op. 47
The Swan of Tuonela Op. 22
Symphony No. 5 in E Flat major Op. 82
Little could the Lahti Symphony Orchestra have known when its United Kingdom visit was planned many months before, that the death of Paavo Berglund the day before the orchestra’s appearance at Symphony Hall would cast a long shadow over the evening’s music making.
The man, who was in many ways the forerunner of a seemingly endless stream of conductors and soloists to have emerged from Finland in recent decades and who was encouraged by Sibelius himself during the early years of his conducting career, holds a very special place in the affections of the Finnish nation, along with many Britons who remember with equal affection his seven year tenure with the Bournemouth Symphony orchestra from 1972 – 1979 – a period which spawned many Sibelius recordings from Berglund.
Hence, Okko Kamu’s understated announcement to the audience at the start of the second half of this concert that The Swan of Tuonela would be dedicated to the memory of a man Kamu himself knew so well, lent a poignant significance to the evening’s proceedings.
Those proceedings got underway with the Karelia Suite, a work which for all it familiarity, also encapsulates in miniature form the essential characteristics and DNA of Sibelius’s mature language. The ‘small-town wonder’ as the orchestra has been called in the past is a band with a wonderfully burnished sound perhaps borne of a string section that plays on some very old and cherished instruments. Directed with uncluttered clarity by Kamu, a man whose technique rarely resorts to anything that approaches histrionics, the mellow sound of the strings came very much to the fore in the deeply nationalistic Ballade whilst the final joyful Alla Marcia displayed a style entirely befitting of Sibelius at his most melodically appealing and cheerful.
Violinist Elina Vähälä cut an elegant figure with her blonde Nordic looks complemented by a flowing grey dress as she opened the Violin Concerto in magically hushed whispers. Blessed with a sweet purity of tone and crystal clear articulation, her inherent understanding of the language paid particular dividends in the complexities of the opening movement, whilst finding a compelling fusion of passion and drama in the central Adagio di molto that deftly and swiftly transformed into wild virility for the Polonaise of the final Allegro ma non tanto.
Its story might be one of dark retribution but The Swan of Tuonela is one of Sibelius’s most haunting and beautiful creations and it would be difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute to the great Paavo Berglund than this. The first of Sibelius’s Four Lemminkäinen Legends to be composed in 1893, the music was here imbued with a wondrous sense of atmosphere and mystery with cor anglais soloist Jukka Hirvikangas displaying a touching simplicity in his phrasing and lyricism.
The Fifth Symphony was a work that Berglund recorded and conducted on countless occasions and he would surely have approved of the magisterial sense of pacing, shape and structure that Kamu and his players brought to the opening movement, the wise choice of tempi stemming from an entirely natural affinity with the music of his fellow countryman. The variations of the Andante mosso melted into each other with glorious ease, the radiant sense of nature to be found in the famous strains of the final movement powerful yet always marked by a sense of control that exemplified everything Kamu and his orchestra played during the entire concert.
The final emphatic chords of the symphony, judged to perfection by Okko Kamu, might have brought the curtain down on a fine performance but one suspects that the spirit and influence of the man paid tribute to in the exquisite performance of The Swan of Tuonela, will live in the hearts of the Finnish nation for many years to come.