Impressive Sibelius from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Søndergård

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sibelius, Dvarionas: Vadim Gluzman (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.4.12 (JPr)

Sibelius: En saga, Op.9
Balys Dvarionas: Violin Concerto in B minor (1948) [UK première]
Sibelius: Symphony No.2 in D major

I have not heard as much of Sibelius’s music as I perhaps should have, and indeed this was the fifth of a BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius symphony cycle and only the first I had attended. However, a change from the published programme allowed two of Sibelius’s major works to be juxtaposed. Perhaps the most significant thing I knew about the great Finnish composer was that in 1907 Mahler, when on a visit to Sibelius’s home country, had a discussion with him on the nature of the symphony, and he uttered the famous words ‘The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’ I and a number of other – rightly or wrongly – take this to mean Mahler’s symphonies have personal, emotional significance and are more confessional and biographical than those of classicists such as Brahms and, of course, Sibelius himself. These two important twentieth-century musical figures spoke after Sibelius had premièred his 1902 Second Symphony – that was played in the second half of this concert – and while he was working on the third of the seven symphonies he finally finished in a relative short composing career. Sibelius was 91 when he died but went to great lengths it seems to avoid music in his last thirty years or so.

Many of his tone poems, such as En saga, were inspired by Nordic legends and a major influence on Sibelius’s music was Finnish folk music; its melodies and rhythms. I understand that his composing style developed as he got older and while there were nods towards Richard Wagner in his early works he went on to develop his own style and became a complete master of orchestral shades and colouring. His music is riddled with the composer’s patriotism (he even refused to leave his homeland when Russia invaded Finland during World War II) and, like Mahler, he loved nature, finding great pleasure in walking in the countryside and frequently finding from this some inspiration for his music.

Though what we heard was a later 1902 revision, Sibelius was in his twenties when he composed En saga (‘A fairy-tale’) in 1892 and nearer the end of his life than the beginning, he recounted that ‘En saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.’ I quite understood this from the work’s turbulence that is underpinned by some restless strings, bold brass and dramatic wind passages. It has a delicate almost wistful conclusion featuring a fine clarinet solo (great work here by Andrew Webster) and this creates a reflective atmosphere, hinting at the autobiographical meaning to En saga Sibelius would want us to believe. Thomas Søndergård (replacing the previously announced Neeme Järvi) conducted with a youthful energy and rampant passion for a work he clearly knows well.

If En saga and the Second Symphony were my first live introduction to Sibelius’s music then I don’t think I could have heard anything better to attract me to hear more when time allows. I particularly enjoyed the performance of the symphony and Thomas Søndergård seemed to propel it onwards with an exuberance that threatened to leave some of the more elderly players in the BBC Symphony Orchestra lagging behind the beat. The BBC SO’s sterling brass section seemed almost as enthusiastic as Søndergård himself and they helped bring out the Nordic flavour of the music. Never once in this En saga or this Second Symphony could Sibelius be mistaken for anything other than a Nordic composer! I do hope that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales he will take over next season is mostly young, as they will need infinite reserves of energy to keep up with their conductor in this sort of music.

There was some angst in the music and that was because Sibelius was composing in the midst of a series of personal crises, including the loss of his infant daughter in 1900. He initially wanted to write a programmatic work based either on the legend of Don Juan or Dante’s Divine Comedy, but eventually settled on the symphony in the form we now have it and Sibelius himself conducted the first four performances in Helsinki. The gentle opening on low strings, oboe and horn evokes the pastoral imagery of Scandinavia and the symphony then continues on its majestic way that is so indicative of that beautiful landscape, people and climate and this lends the music a magic and mystical force. During the stunning final passages Thomas Søndergård whipped the orchestra up and up towards an exalting, life-affirming ending. The weaving of the strings, the sonorous depth of the double basses and the triumphant brass fanfare seem undoubtedly – even on this first acquaintance with some of his music – to be uniquely characteristic of Sibelius.

In between the two Sibelius works we had the first UK performance of the Violin Concerto in B minor by the late-Romantic Lithuanian composer, Balys Dvarionas (1904-72) played by Vadim Gluzman – a champion of the work – in the presence of the composer’s son and granddaughter. It was composed in 1948 and effectively banned at the time by the USSR’s musical commissars because they deemed it was an unsuitable example of the Soviet Union’s musical world. I thought I heard a lot of East European and gipsy folk melodies and it seems a nice show-off piece for a violin virtuoso with a sound technique. Despite a last movement that is basically in the minor key it does not appear to test the soloist too much and is an undemanding, accessible work. Vadim Gluzman playing his famous 1690 ‘ex-Leopold Auer’ Stradivarius (that had premièred the Glazunov Violin Concerto) gave it a performance of considerable accomplishment, brilliance and sparkle, so much so, that after all this his encore of the Gavotte from Bach’s E major Partita – as nice as it was – seemed totally unnecessary.

Jim Pritchard