Two Third Symphonies by Sibelius and Lutoslawski

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sibelius, Lutoslawski: Lucy Crowe (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 20.6.2013 (CT) 

Sibelius: Symphony No. 3
Lutoslawski: Chantefleurs et Chantefables
Sibelius: Luonnotar
Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 3

The pairing of the Third Symphonies by Jean Sibelius and Witold Lutoslawski might, on the face of it, appear to be an incongruous one. Yet if there is a common denominator, it is the fact that neither composer shied away from creative reinvention during the course of their careers with arguably the least regularly heard of Sibelius’s seven symphonic essays being what the composer saw as a reaction against the overblown romantic excesses of his creative contemporaries, notably Gustav Mahler.

What the music retains in its relationship to Mahler however, is the glorious sense of nature that Edward Gardner exploited to maximum effect as he breathed fresh pine scented air into the music in a glowing, life enhancing performance with the CBSO that captivated from the very opening bars.

With the baffle doors almost closed in Symphony Hall to telling acoustic effect, the CBSO’s woodwind were in magnificent form all evening, with the opening Allegro moderato taking on a notable potency and energy, unfolding in joyous fashion with every tiny contrast of timbre and dynamic given crucial, microscopic attention by Gardner and his charges. With baton largely redundant, the expressive contrasts of the central Andantino can moto were shaped with a natural elegance that cast a magical spell whilst the sense of cumulative energy of the final movement was magnificently paced and controlled in a performance that made a hugely compelling case for a work that is all too often overlooked.

The wit and whimsy of Lutoslawski’s engaging song cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables could hardly be further from the muscular, aleatoric adventures of his Third Symphony. The French surrealist texts by Robert Desnos used by the composer colour a series of nine fleeting, vignette like songs imbued with abundant charm and a soundworld that places them closer to Britten or Ravel than the Lutoslawski of works such as Venetian Games and Mi-Parti.

Lucy Crowe’s rapid rise to stardom has seen her acquire an enviable reputation as one of the most sought after lyric sopranos around and her natural, engaging stage presence proved finely suited to the images of plants and animals depicted through the eyes of a child. For all their sense of wide eyed wonder, the songs make huge demands on the singer whilst weaving a kaleidoscopic web of accompaniment from the small instrumental forces utilised to breathtaking effect by the composer.

From the flower songs of La belle-de-nuit and La rose to the antics of the tortoise and the alligator, the delicacy and vocal athleticism of Lucy Crowe was remarkable in a performance that clearly found her many a new admirer amongst the Birmingham audience.

If it was a sense of delicate fragility and childlike innocence that Lucy Crowe brought to Lutoslawski’s box of natural delights in Chantefleurs et Chantefables, the contrast with the mysterious, darkly hued tones of Sibelius’s enigmatic Luonnotar could hardly have been more marked.

Crowe’s surety of pitch in her highest register allied with the sheer power of her delivery as Sibelius pushes the voice to its very limits in the storm fuelled central climax of his other worldly, Kalevala inspired tale of earthly creation proved magnificent enough, but it was the haunting, uneasy atmosphere of the close that left the audience in Symphony Hall spellbound. The extended silence in the hall as the final ethereal sounds settled spoke for itself.

Edward Gardner’s recent series of recordings of Lutoslawski’s music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Chandos provided potent evidence of the affinity that Gardner feels for the Polish master. The Third Symphony is in some ways the most accessible of Lutoslawski’s symphonies, largely on account of its clearly audible architecture, a structure that the composer anchors with a recurring series of hammered E’s that herald the various changes of direction during the course of the work’s two extended movements, the first of which acts as the precursor to the more developmental discourse of the second.

It is a work that brings to the fore the sheer genius of Lutoslawski’s orchestration, with the swirling clouds of his carefully controlled, deeply personal form of aleatoricism combining with his unerring and often beguiling aural imagination to create the effect of a concerto for orchestra in which every section and soloist is challenged.

From the scurrying, delicate sounds of harp embellished strings to billowing woodwind and towering waves of brass sound, the CBSO responded to Edward Gardner’s energetic, unwaveringly committed direction with total commitment in a performance that for all its brilliance of technique drew a deep vein of emotion from a score that is surely one of Lutoslawski’s most powerful, all embracing orchestral utterances.

It is difficult to comprehend this music of extreme virtuosity and complexity being played with more penetrating technical and interpretative insight than it was here by the CBSO under Edward Gardner.

With Gardner having accepted a new post at the Bergen Philharmonic in addition to his duties at English National Opera, a significant question mark hangs over how much time he will be able to devote to his position of Principal Guest Conductor with the CBSO in future years.

That thought might just be one more reason to revel in the passion, dynamism and élan that he and the players of the CBSO brought to this fascinating programme of music.

Christopher Thomas