Spellbinding Sibelius from Leonidas Kavakos

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sibelius: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 9.12.2012 (CD)

Sibelius:  Symphony No.6 in D Minor, Op. 104
Sibelius:  Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Sibelius:  Symphony No .7 in C Major, Op. 105

(See also “A Sibelius Lover’s Frozen Dream“)

This concert was originally planned to have been conducted by the LSO’s President, Sir Colin Davis. Sadly Sir Colin’s recent ill health meant he was unable to fulfill this engagement and the LSO were fortunate to be able to turn to another distinguished Sibelian in Osmo Vänskä. Hopefully Sir Colin will be well enough to return to the LSO podium in the New Year to resume his planned series of concerts.

Vänskä’s reading of the Sixth symphony had rapid tempi and bright, bold sounds from the LSO.  The opening section of the first movement had some tentative playing from the violins and the movement only settled down following the dramatic entry of the trumpets and trombones. The ‘Allegretto Moderato’ second movement was nicely flowing, although some passages could have been given more time to breath.

The third and segue final movements brought the same approach, with brisk tempi and limited opportunity for the more reflective passages to make their mark. Only in the symphony’s closing bars did the music achieve real stillness and contemplation.

Kavakos has a long-standing association with the Sibelius concerto, being the only violinist to record the original (1903/4) version of the concerto, coupled with the final (1905) version, on an award winning 1992 BIS CD with Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra providing the accompaniment.

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Violin Concerto (org. & rev. versions),
L.Kavakos / O.Vänskä / Lahti SO

available at Amazon J.Sibelius, Symphonies 6 & 7,
O.Vänskä / Lahti SO

On this occasion the performance brought a high level of expressive freedom, yet always worked effectively within the overall structure of the piece. The many unaccompanied sections in the opening movement had significant variations in tempo and at times the violin part sounded close to improvisation. This flexibility never drifted into indulgence or pure virtuoso display though, and the movement steadily built momentum towards a climactic close. The second movement had contrasting calmness and repose and the final bars of the movement were wonderfully still and ethereal. The finale had both bite and dynamism.

Kavakos played with masterful assurance throughout with the many technical difficulties of this score tackled with complete confidence and with a tone quality that was warm and full in the lower strings and bright and sweet when needed in the higher registers. Vänskä and the LSO provided powerful but sensitive accompaniment with the strings finding a depth of tone that had been largely absent in the Sixth symphony. This was a spellbinding performance of the concerto that received a standing ovation from a significant part of a full Barbican Hall.

Vänskä took a similar approach to the Seventh symphony as to the Sixth; brisk tempi, bold playing and an emphasis on ensuring that there was forward momentum at all times. However, the approach was much more successful this time as the music was allowed to breathe and to develop organically. The opening bars brought a striking depth of sonority from the strings. There was some nicely inward playing from the cellos and violas and the LSO wind and brass were on fine form throughout. The opening statement of the great trombone theme and its later restatement were both striking and momentous and at the same time finely blended into the ensemble.

Something of a mixed night then: a fine performance of the Seventh symphony with a Sixth that was just the wrong side of restless. The highlight was the outstanding reading of the concerto though, and this interpretation will remain in the memory for some time.

Carl Dowthwaite