Finnish Specialities in Salford Courtesy of a Mexican Conductor and a British Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Saariaho, Rautavaara: Adam Walker (flute), BBC Philharmonic / Carlos Miguel Prieto (conductor), MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 9.12.2015. (RB)

Jean Sibelius: Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island; Lemminkainen’s Return

Kaija Saariaho: Aile du songe for flute and orchestra (2001)

Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No. 7 Angel of Light (1994)

For this listener Sibelius 150 has been a lavish year for Sibelius concerts and if the BBC have anything to do with it the celebrations will continue over into 2016. A good thing too. This BBC Philharmonic studio concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 apart from Lemminkainen’s Return which was recorded for future use. It formed part of the BBC’s extended Northern Lights season which begins just as their great Sibelius year ends.

It also served to bring me to a concert directed by the very same Mexican conductor, Carlos Miguel Prieto, who presided over two very fine concerts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in April 2015 (review review). Prieto has been a pupil of Jorge Mester – he of Louisville fame – and of Charles Bruck, best known for his connection with ORTF. He has been music director of Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México since 2007 and has gradually been making an admirable professional and personable reputation for himself across the world. Orchestras and audiences like him – at least that has been my experience. It seems that he has quite a discography, although I do not recall hearing any of his recordings (yet). They include a 12-DVD set of the Mahler symphonies and a Naxos Korngold Violin Concerto with Philippe Quint. Nick Barnard reviewed his Cedille disc of the Chavez Piano Concerto for Musicweb International in 2013.

The concert programme avoided the hackneyed. Even the Sibelius Lemminkainen pair were the first and last of the four tone poems. The first, which I last heard when Paavo Berglund, then very ill and having to be helped onto the stage, conducted it with languorous results in Brighton in 2005, was here notable for contrasting virtues: kinetic drive and precisely terraced dynamics. The latter was especially apparent at the start where the chafing and rocking violin figuration descanted with the chirping woodwind. While much is made of the Kalevala plotline and the work’s origins in a never-realised Kalevala opera, like all good programme music the storyline can be safely forgotten. The music sang, rippled, bristled and flowed in this composer’s best romantic-nationalist idiom. This was a shivering and foot-tapping reading which achieved a nice equipoise of control and delirium.

The Saariaho turned out in effect to be a flute concerto in what amounted to a slow-fast-slow pattern across two movements: Aérienne and Terrestre. It was given voice by the verse of French poet-diplomat, Saint-John Perse (1887-1975), hence the title, Aile du songe. Perse has inspired Saariaho before in Laconisme de l’aile (1981). She writes of Perse’s descriptions of bird-flight mingled with avian-mystical imagery. The brilliantly gifted Adam Walker, LSO principal since 2009, is a grateful soloist in both senses and in this fairly modern score he meets a composer “very familiar with the flute … [and who likes the sound] …  in which breathing is ever present.” The orchestra is minus woodwind and brass but otherwise sports a very active yet delicate percussion section including xylophone and marimba (I think). The music has a dreamy jungle-sultry ambience that constantly brims and occasionally erupts yet never congeals. The solo flute part encompasses a wide vocabulary including words or fragments of words blown into the flute alongside slightly more conventional lyrical paragraphs. At one point one of the conductor’s lavish arm gestures hit the soloist’s music-stand and scattered score pages. The timpanist and principal cello without a fluster filled the gap around a sustained note for long seconds while Walker and Prieto gathered up the pages and placed them back in order. Those listening to the broadcast – except perhaps the composer – would never have known; true professionalism. The music has an oneiric spell comparable with Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony though more diaphanous and with that of Escher’s Hymne du Grand Meaulnes.

If Saariaho has a predilection for Perse then Rautavaara’s 40 minute Seventh Symphony picks up on a subject which has from time to time preoccupied that composer, namely angels. Perhaps it is not all that deeply rooted on this occasion since the symphony began life as the Bloomington Symphony.  In any event its four movements are very lyrical and contrast with the edgy Saariaho. Here the music is lyrical, long-breathed, efflorescent and fluent. If you have heard and warmed to the symphonies of Alla Pavlova then much of this will appeal and be recognisable. I was also reminded of Ned Rorem’s Lions and Pärt’s Cantus. It is no surprise that this Symphony can already boast several commercial recordings. The second movement with its muted brass introduction and riptide rush provides contrast with a predominance of extended, lucid and light-filled ‘sentences’. The finale continues in a related vein but with the trombones providing an ‘old school’ heroic flourish over the upwelling saturating lyricism. It was no wonder that Prieto, who conducted without baton for this, just after the last quiet notes had faded, looked over his shoulder at the audience as if to say: “Now what do you think of that?” It’s a while since I have heard this piece – and never live – but this must surely be one of the signature works of the last century and ultimately with the same enduring staying power as Rautavaara’s much earlier Cantus Arcticus.

This freshly programmed and executed concert ended with a Beecham showpiece which set the pulse racing even if, in this case, it was not quite as pell-mell as Beecham’s famous RPO recording. The orchestra and Prieto took us excitingly through Lemminkainen’s Return and the buzz was all the more telling given the razor-sharp clarity of the playing.

Rob Barnett

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