Unforgettable Sibelius from Pekka Kuusisto

16/06/2017

Elgar, Sibelius: Pekka Kuusisto (violin), London Chamber Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 14.6.2017. (CS)

Elgar – Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47; Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op.36
Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47; The Bard Op.64

Pekka Kuusisto’s debut at the BBC Proms last summer was one of the highlights, not just of the Proms season, but of my whole musical year: not only for the stunning sweetness and insouciance of his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto but also for Kuusisto’s breezy encore, in which he galvanised the Prommers into joining him in the chorus of an ironic Finnish folk song, ‘My Lover is So Beautiful’.  This programme at Cadogan Hall, the final concert in the London Chamber Orchestra’s 2016-17 series, took us back to Finland and offered a happy mix of national sentiment and story-telling.

Kuusisto won the Sibelius competition in 1995 when he was just 19 years old.  Having enjoyed some of the young player’s performances of the Sibelius Concerto on YouTube, I was struck by just how deeply Kuusisto must have reflected on the work in the intervening years, so astonishingly nuanced and self-composed was this performance with the LCO under its President, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Kuusisto was as poised and cool as the icy shimmer of fluttering muted violins with which the Allegro Moderato opens.  The soloist’s first theme had the grace of a swallow against a flawless blue sky, sheer poetry and utterly compelling; the clarinet’s entry was like a droplet of water, falling heavily and breaking the silky surface of a moonlit lake.  But Kuusisto was also noticeably flexible with the rhythm, as if the melody was coming from within rather than being shaped from without.

Indeed, Kuusisto’s entire performance was striking for the way he simply let the music speak for itself.  There were no theatrics here, though the playing was bold and assured, just effortless singing.  He holds his bow so loosely – and quite high up the stick, almost like a folk player – that it seems like a feather brushing the string, magically drawing out the violin’s music with unaffected naturalness.    Precipitous runs do not erupt in grandiose rhetoric, just sparkle as the summit is reached; treacherous octaves slip by with ease; complex double-stops are warm but powerful.  Indeed, the strength of the tone that Kuusisto conjures with the gentlest of touches is truly astonishing.  And, no matter how high the bow leaps from the string, it unfailingly lands with the light-footed delicacy of a dancer.  What’s even more astonishing is the violinist’s unwavering focus even though – as he lifts his gaze upwards, turns towards the orchestra to enjoy a woodwind solo or engage with the strings, or even throws a mischievous grin in the direction of an audience member – he seems barely to be concentrating at all.

If the G-string theme which opens the Adagio di molto was exquisitely imbued with warmth and colour, then it was just a foretaste of the spirited loveliness of the energetic dance with which the final Allegro commences: repeated down-bows brushed the string like a loaded paintbrush, and the clean evenness of the stuttering semiquaver runs was stunning, even though Kuusisto split them into two bow strokes.

This was inspired, refined playing and the audience in the Cadogan Hall were more than happy when Kuusisto returned to perform an encore, his own arrangement – or ‘improvement’, as he drolly put it – of a Finnish folk song.  Again, it was Kuusisto’s bowing technique which took one’s breath away, from the tender strokes at the very tip of the bow which conjured the crooning melody at the start, to the double-stopped climax in which the four-strings rang richly as a single, blended chord of emotion.  And, who else would lift his violin from his shoulder, turn it square on to the audience and indulge in pizzicato mischief-making to accompany his own whistling?  The artistry was equalled by the evident seriousness of Kuusisto’s expressive engagement with the music of his homeland.

Unfortunately, the LCO couldn’t quite match Kuusisto’s intensity.  They seemed underpowered at the climaxes; there were only five cellos (though four double basses) and the sound did not surge from the depths in the compelling waves which Sibelius crafts.  Ashkenazy followed his soloist meticulously and with metronomic accuracy, but despite the clarity of his guidance the woodwind entries sometimes seemed tentative, while he gave the brass just a little too much encouragement.

The programme framed Sibelius with Elgar.  We heard Sibelius’s rarely performed short tone-poem The Bard at the start of the second half, and though it relates to no specific myth – and the composer denied that there was any reference to the poem of the same name by his favourite poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg – here the LCO did become poignant story-tellers, capturing the expressive range and beauty of Sibelius’s understated but densely detailed orchestrations.  Ashkenazy imbued the evocative ripples with a haunting airiness.

The strings of the LSO were less successful at capturing the ardency of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings at the start of the evening.  While they were untroubled by the work’s complexity, and there was some fine playing from the four soloists, the ensemble, particularly in the first violins, took a while to settle.  Elgar’s strikingly original instrumental sonorities didn’t quite make their mark and the fugue lacked truly propulsive energy.  Ashkenazy’s rather idiosyncratic style – elbows drawn back and raised to shoulder-height, forearms pointing the baton plumb to the floor and flicking vigorous instructions to the players – didn’t seem designed to garner either the contemplative mystery or fervent eloquence of the work.

Things came together, though, for the Enigma Variations when, it seemed, the ‘knot’ between Ashkenazy’s shoulders unravelled at last, allowing for much greater freedom of movement and thus of expression.  It probably helped that this is a work the players must know well; there was a confidence and dash of style about the orchestra’s playing that had been missing thus far.  Ashkenazy set fast tempi but the textures were well-defined and the detailed motivic developments crisply audible; even ‘Nimrod’ was not allowed to wallow in self-indulgent sentiment, which made the broadening of the final bars even more touching.  There was strong playing from the strings’ section leaders, especially second violinist Kathy Shave and viola player Kate Musker, and the alert contributions from the horns and brass, and timpani, added brightness, bite and vigour.  Ashkenazy knitted the variations together into a seamless whole.  But, the lingering memory of the evening was of a lone violinist playing with the self-contained mystery of the symbolic bard of legend.

Claire Seymour

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