Radio: Sibelius Symphony No.3 Bax Tintagel BBC Symphony Orchestra

Principal BBC Symphony Orchestra viola player Phil Hall describes the conductor of the band’s Sibelius season opener Sakari Oramo as ‘experienced and avuncular’. If that view is shared across the orchestra, then it may in part explain the warmth which emanated from nearly all of BBC Radio 3’s live broadcast last night.

This was – musically speaking – a safe and accessible programme.

Arnold Bax’s tone poem Tintagel combines the sounds of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and echoes Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. Occasionally, Tintagel‘s rampantly romantic near-schmalzy depiction of the tumultuous sea around the Cornish island peninsular on which the castle of the same name is situated, left me feeling like I’ve been listening to the musical equivalent of wallpaper. Each to his own.

Sandwiched in-between this and the symphony was the song cycle Luonnotar and a UK premiere of Saariaho’s Leino Songs, the latter providing a much-needed escape from the comparatively rich sonorities normally associated with Bax and Sibelius.

The big billing of this concert was Sibelius’ Symphony No.3, the first of a complete cycle being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra between now and May 2012. It’s an interesting and engaging work, if a little cut short.

In the opening sequence of the first movement, the chuntering strings and burbling winds threaten the hope of a pastoral idyll presenting something far more rooted in reality. The contrast between both themes isn’t good versus evil as a balance between the two. The compromise is implicit in the chord at the end of movement.

Moving on, the second movement sports a hauntingly simple theme enhanced towards the end of the opening statement with an elegant syncopated rhythmic development sure to set the heart a-flutter. All very haunting. Reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and better for it.

I say ‘better for it’ because there’s an assumption made about Sibelius and his melodic invention possibly because of the woeful repetition works like Finlandia, his Karelia Suite and the fifth symphony are played. These works package up our nationalistic and stereotypical view of Finland, a view musically represented (albeit it more efficiently) in the combined scherzo and chorale-like coda of the final 3rd movement concluding a work which probably could have had a good ten minutes more of development than the listener actually gets.

A good concert – although the near constant soloistic applause of the stage manager backstage made the links between live performance and presentation a little odd – which also included an entertaining arrangement of Strauss’ Til Eulenspiel for chamber ensemble as part of the ever-increasingly frequent now speech-less interval pieces on BBC Radio 3. Sibelius’ 3rd definitely worth repeat listens.

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