The Latest Instalment in Sakari Oramo’s Sibelius Cycle with the BBCSO

30/11/2017

Sibelius and Hillborg: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Barbican, London, 29.11.2017. (Y-JH)

Sibelius – Symphony No.6; Symphony No.4

Hillborg – Violin Concerto No.2 (UK Premiere)

Elusive is hardly a flattering way to describe Sibelius’ Fourth and Sixth symphonies, works performed tonight as part of Sakari Oramo’s ongoing Sibelius cycle with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Certainly, the two symphonies do without the bold, soaring melodies characteristic of the Finnish composer’s orchestral works, yet they convey depths of shades that go beyond the immediately impressionable.

Oramo was reluctant for eccentric maneuvers in approaching the Sixth symphony, a gentle work where more is implied than shown. When Vänskä had tackled this symphony with the LPO last year, the conductor’s own personality was palpably felt in the athletic manner the piece was exercised. In contrast, Oramo’s reading favoured a respect towards the score, with lyricism made explicit in the firm vibrato-driven strings. Laxness in concentration was hardly allowed as each movement added new layers of momentum. By means of sheer alertness of playing and orchestral balance, the scintillating pulse underlying the outward chaste was outlined. When the calm of the incipience of the work was recalled at the coda of the Allegro molto, one understood that the composer’s remark of the work as a reminder of ‘the scent of the first snow’ has less to do with the snow than a sense of warmth of the fragile things that (will) pass. Overall it was a performance where everything fit together. It will remain, among both recordings and live performances, one of the most convincing accounts of its kind.

If the stoic textures of Sibelius’ Fourth and Sixth symphonies go against virtues of an echt-symphonic drama, this is hardly accidental; the composer considered both as protests against the musical direction of his time. Yet a certain bleakness breathes in the Fourth that the Sixth doesn’t attempt. In Oramo’s reading, thus was the fortissimo of the lower strings in the beginning played with physicality, and the Il tempo largo, taken with extra breadth and with heavy doses of silence had a mark of austerity. Still, the presence of songful vibrato in the strings, especially in the various chamber-music-like solo sequences, did not allow thing to delve into the desolate extremes. Such hope, as it were, was nowhere more pronounced upon entering the Allegro. As if blind to the preceding grit and ignorant of the ambiguity of the imminent coda, the movement burst into life, brightly galloping through the sparse winds outbursts and naively playful glockenspiel. Immaculately played no doubt, whether or not such pressed enthusiasm in the finale disrupts the flow towards the eventual quietude if not resignation of the symphony’s conclusion, is a matter of viewpoint.

Anders Hillborg’s Second Violin Concerto, presented between the two symphonies, was a fresh reminder that tunefulness still has its place among contemporary compositions. Sections of glissando separated blocks of stillness, virtuosity, Middle Eastern exoticism and birdsongs. An entertaining and immersive showpiece – reflecting its success in concert halls – although the returning slow section was, in its repetitively languorous procession, not without sedate qualities. Lisa Batiashivilli, to whom the work was dedicated, gave a characteristically convincing performance.

Young-Jin Hur

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