Numinous Sibelius Playing Steals the Show in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Elgar:  Akiko Suwanai (violin), Jane Irwin(mezzo), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Welsh National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 10.2.2012 (GPu)

Sibelius:  Tapiola
Sibelius:  Violin Concerto
Elgar:  The Music Makers

Jungians interpret the darkness of the forest as symbolizing the unconscious and see fear of the forest as a kind of panic terror of what the unconscious might reveal. That, surely, is one dimension (however undesignedly) of Sibelius’s Tapiola. Tapio was a forest spirit in East Finnish mythology, who possessed eyebrows of moss, a beard of lichen and a bonnet of fir, and sometime took the form of a bear. Sibelius prefaced the score with four lines reading thus: “Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, / Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; / Within them dwells the forest’s mighty God, / And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets”. Tapiola dramatises human approaches to and into the forest (whether one ‘reads’ it literally or in the Jungian sense above), but also the forest’s refusal to allow any full human comprehension of itself. Jac van Steen has, in recent years, repeatedly shown himself a fine interpreter of Sibelius, so it came as no surprise to find him conducting a powerful and subtle performance of Tapiola. The opening had an impressive sense of stillness and ominous tension, the whole communicated a profoundly numinous atmosphere. A persuasively organic pulse sustained the changes of mood, from seemingly welcoming whisper to minatory storm. The three sostenuto chords which close the work seemed less a benediction, an ‘Amen’ as I have heard them described, and more an acknowledgement of the continued existence of an ungraspable world to which human language (including music) can do no more than gesture. That Sibelius should complete so little of major significance after Tapiola seems implicit in those chords.

Tapiola was composed in 1926. The Violin Concerto which followed it in this programme was a much earlier work, written and revised between 1903 and 1905, which belongs to a very different world. The fine Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanai, playing the 1714 ‘Dolphin’ Stradivarius, formerly played by Heifetz (who did so much for this work’s reputation when he took it up in the 1930s), was a persuasively lyrical interpreter of the solo part, and van Steen’s sure touch with Sibelius ensured that she benefited from well-judged and sympathetic orchestral support. Suwanai played the first theme of the opening allegro with both tautness of phrase and singing lyricism, a storyteller and a singer compelling – and holding – her listener’s attention. Van Steen drew some very dark, but not heavy, colours from the orchestra, the sound of the soloist’s violin a glistening, sharp light against that darkness. Here, and elsewhere, the gradations of Suwanai’s playing at the piano/pianissimo end of the spectrum was strikingly beautiful and subtle, the fullness of her tone at the lowest volumes remarkable (while that doubtless speaks of her own talents, it surely also says something about the qualities of her instrument). There was an air of deliberative authority to Van Steen’s conducting of the andante, the opening work of the woodwinds and horns capturing the note of contemplation to perfection, while the later dialogue between soloist and low strings was handled especially well. The Coda’s haunted nostalgia was richly moving. The last movement had the necessary sustained pulse, a sense of renewed vitality after the adagio, perhaps to be understood personally, as the charting of a psychological cycle or, as so often in Sibelius, as a reflection of a natural cycle. But perhaps we don’t have to choose. The assertiveness of the conclusion was properly powerful. All in all, this was a fine reading of this ever-interesting concerto.

Very well-received by the Cardiff audience, Akiko Suwanai treated that audience to the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata in G minor (BWV 1001) by way of encore. A gorgeous, essentially romantic reading, this was three and a half minutes of aural beauty and an object lesson in lucidity of structure (even if it has an air of the improvisatory about it), a moment of radiant calmness after the two Sibelian ‘tempests’. But, it has to be said, it also served to put into some sort of perspective the limitations of the third work on the programme – The Music Makers.

I had never previously heard The Music Makers ‘live’, only in recorded form or in radio broadcast. Even when hearing it performed by such masterly Elgarians as Janet Baker and Adrian Boult I had never been fully persuaded by the work. And, sadly, the best efforts of soloist (Jane Irwin), chorus, orchestra and conductor didn’t do much to persuade me that I had hitherto overlooked a major work. There are, of course, many fine passages in the piece (a good number of them, as is well known, self-quotation from earlier Elgar). In the setting of the last stanza of Arthur O’Shaugnessy’s text, for example, there is some strikingly radiant writing for the soloist (and Jane Irwin captured its quality very engagingly); earlier the words of the sixth stanza (“And therefore today is thrilling / With a past day’s late fulfilling; / And the multitudes are enlisted / In the faith that their fathers resisted …”) prompt some exciting and forceful orchestral textures and exultant writing for the chorus. But the whole is disappointingly less than the sum of its best parts. Certainly, after hearing the Bach Adagio, The Music Makers felt rather grotesquely inflated, a reaching for a kind of grandeur that escapes the composer, a kind of grandeur that Bach achieved so perfectly with a single instrument and a span of a few minutes. An unfair comparison perhaps, but one made inescapable on the evening. All concerned in the performance were fully committed and brought no little skill and insight to proceedings; if the experience left me cold and unable to share Elgar’s vision, the fault was not theirs – rather it was mine, or Elgar’s.

Glyn Pursglove