Megawatt Sibelius from Janine Jansen and the London Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Sibelius, Prokofiev: Janine Jansen (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 29.1.2023. (CS)

Janine Jansen (c) Mark Allan

Beethoven – Overture, ‘Coriolan’, Op.62
Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Prokofiev – Symphony No.6 in Eb minor, Op.111

This London Symphony Orchestra programme at the Barbican Hall placed three strongly distinctive musical voices side by side: three substantial musical statements, all in minor keys; two familiar, one less frequently heard; each given a fresh, thought-provoking reading.

‘Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.’  Sibelius’s oft-quoted remark about his sparse, seeming self-effacing Sixth Symphony highlights that work’s avoidance of both over-charged Romantic rhetoric and modern, expressionist angst.  The implied inward-looking austerity, and the music’s affinity with the elements, might also seem to characterise the opening of the composer’s Violin Concerto, the whispered oscillations of the orchestral violins inviting the soloist to join them with a song sung from afar.  Indeed, describing a performance by the Austrian violinist Emmanuel Tjeknavorian – who in 2015, at 20 years-of-age, won the prize for the best interpretation of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto at the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition – with the Philharmonia and Michael Sanderling in February 2020, I found the opening solo to inspire images of ‘a bird easefully circling in a sun-shimmering sky above glistening ice’.

Well, there was no ‘glistening ice’ in this performance of Sibelius’s Concerto by the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen.  This was heart-on-sleeve, megawatt Romanticism – rich, meaty, commanding, driving forward with unremitting intensity.  Whereas I found that the strength of Tjeknavorian’s sound to be allied with subtlety and an inner stillness, Jansen seemed to strive to communicate the work’s unceasing dynamism, swaying and bending low into the phrases and then standing tall to project with absolute command and power, and with immensely concentrated attention to colour and detail.

I confess I prefer the fleeting silveriness of Pekka Kuusisto: the sense of mystery and something elemental – wide vistas of time and space – that his unhurried spinning of Sibelius’s cool lines evokes.  Of something ancient and true being slowly given breathe and brought to life – the coolness and purity its very intensity.  But, there was no denying the communicative persuasiveness of Jansen’s approach and it was complemented by Noseda who encouraged the LSO to surge into and through the instrumental climaxes, and who turned the musical corners with well-oiled fluency.

Jansen used a wide vibrato to put a lot of flesh on the bones of that first solo statement in the Allegro moderato and the rich warmth was sustained through the arpeggios, runs and double-stops, her tone a wonderful blend of sumptuousness and steel.  Often in this movement the Eb minor Largamente, triggered by the soloist’s surging ascent, feels like a glorious rush of adrenalin in contrast to the calmer preceding woodwind theme; here the opposite was true – it was a moment of relaxation, of indulgence in the Romantic lyricism.  Jansen’s cadenza was unflinchingly driven and determined, the voicing strongly etched, the harmonic direction clearly articulated through the placement of the lower notes in the multiple-stopped chords, while always sustaining the impetus of the line.  And, after that, Jansen’s G-string melody roared – and, if that sounds a bit fierce, then one would say that the fire offered comforting heat.  There was ferocity at the close of the movement, though, as Noseda coaxed thunderous stabs from the LSO.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the LSO at the Barbican (c) Mark Allan

The long low line at the start of the Adagio di molto was beautifully shaped, again with beguiling warmth, and if the horns complemented Jansen’s Brahmsian weight, then the music was ‘lifted’ by the rising pizzicatos in the lower strings and the violins’ light syncopations.  There was tremendous power from the strings in the tutti string climaxes, though, as Noseda achieved both breadth and continuity.

I missed some of the playfulness of the Allegro, ma non tanto.  The music was full of ‘purpose’ rather than high-spirited, and, for me, didn’t really ‘dance’ – though Jansen’s bow had me mesmerised in the opening theme as she swept through the down-bow and then used the hooked dotted rhythms to work her way back to the heel, with the slick sleight-of-hand of a conjurer shuffling a pack of cards.  Noseda judiciously balanced percussive drive with lyricism in the tutti episodes, neatly clearing the air for the solo violin episodes.  Those Sibelian pedals at the close that create ‘false endings’ of growing tension had to work hard to achieve their effect, given the unalleviated intensity of what had preceded them, but the explosiveness of the final three sforzando chords that accompanied Jansen’s high-octane crescendo ascent was met with rapturous applause from the capacity audience in the Barbican Hall.  And one young admirer, who proffered a bouquet, was given a warm, genuine hug by the evidently delighted Jansen.

Sibelius’s afore-cited remark reinforced an aesthetic position that the composer had taken in 1907 when he met Mahler, during the latter’s tour of Finland.  To Mahler’s assertion that ‘the symphony must be like the world.  It must embrace everything’, Sibelius countered, ‘I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives.’  That ‘profound logic’ found voice in Jansen’s encore, the Largo from the C Major sonata for solo violin – a palette cleanser in which the song now sang clear and pure, the inward-looking intensity paradoxically communicative and entrancing.

Nineteenth-century commentators oft remarked the originality of Beethoven’s musical ideas and his development of them. E.T.A. Hoffmann, for example, highlighted the way Beethoven’s openings create tension and anticipation, noting in an 1812 review of the Coriolan Overture that the ‘principal theme of the Allegro has a character of irresistible restlessness, of unquenchable longing … the transposition of this theme a tone lower is unexpected and increases the tension’.  He concluded that all combines to create, ‘the highest pitch of expectation for that which the rise of the mysterious curtain will reveal’.  Noseda seemed determined to emphasise such destabilising undercurrents in his reading of the Overture.  As in the Sibelius, string forces were reduced and there was space for the woodwind solos to come through as the dynamics veered widely between extremes.  Noseda quite literally threw himself into the musical drama, urging his players with almost violent sways of his body, and vigorous jerks and scoops of his arms.  I found the overall effect somewhat fragmentary – rather too restless – though there was no denying the vigour and expressive urgency that Noseda conjured.

Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony is a fairly rare visitor to concert halls.  It’s a historically important work, though.  First performed in Leningrad in October 1947, when it travelled to Moscow two months later it provoked denunciation by the Communist Party and the Union of Soviet Composers.   His Fifth Symphony may have won a Stalin Prize earlier that year, but the Sixth was excoriated as ‘expressionist and neurotic’, ‘abnormal, repulsive and pathological’.

To twentieth-century ears, the symphony’s modernism seems unremarkable, and there is much lyrical beauty, particularly in the long central Largo.  Conducting an enlarged string section to complement the extensive wind and brass forces, Noseda shaped the delicacies of this movement expressively, sustaining the prevailing breadth of line, but countering the lyricism with episodes of quasi-mechanical percussiveness – skilfully balancing emollience and aggression.  The glory of the full, flowing tutti sound grabbed the ear and heart: a wonderful expansiveness of colour and timbre, spanning from tuba to piccolo, with harp, oboe, trumpet, strings shining in between, cohering into an embracing lushness.

The Allegro moderato was more chiselled, austere, its colours dark, the mood tense.  The strings’ unison fragments were lithe, horn solos plaintive yet penetrating.  Noseda created a persuasive sense of an accumulating musical argument, the music somehow both modern and classical in spirit.  There was a Haydn-esque ‘lightness’ at the start of the Vivace, too, flute and tuba ‘duetting’ above celli pizzicatos, the violins’ articulations impressively crisp and airy.  But, that the breeziness is ironic, painfully so, was made increasingly evident, the jauntiness giving way to jarring hammer blocks – unambiguously grim and grave.

Claire Seymour

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