Philharmonia: Sibelius Symphony 6 and 7 / Bjarnason Violin Concerto / Pekka Kuuisisto / Esa-Pekka Salonen

The LSO has Rattle, but London has the Philharmonia, and the Philharmonia has Esa-Pekka Salonen.

And whilst writing about orchestras and their concerts shouldn’t be like writing about football matches, the Philharmonia’s opening 2017/18 season concert presents a temptation too hard to resist.

So I won’t.

Based on conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interpretation of Sibelius’ 6th and 7th symphonies, the Philharmonia is at the top of the league.

There ends the footballing reference. I’m way out of my depth.

Accessible language, but the narrative is lacking

Both symphonies are tricky affairs. They’re not to everyone’s liking.

My plus one for the night had done his research. “I’ve listened to the 6th fifteen times in the past 72 hours,” he told me in the interval, “and it fails to deliver the emotional wallop of Mahler’s 1st.”

Someone else I asked rolled his eyes at me, and muttered something about the work being ‘aimless’.

There’s an element of truth in what both parties say.

Forget the abominably dull Karelia Suite ruined by endless school concert renditions. Sibelius’ symphonies are where the man’s purest art is.

But whilst his compositional style makes his music accessible (the melodic and harmonic grammar is easy enough to grasp), the underlying narrative isn’t immediately obvious. That means it doesn’t register well.

The sixth symphony feels like a series of vignettes powered by nationalistic pride. Youthful enthusiasm and anticipation jostle with stark solitude in a pastoral setting.

The end of the third movement is good for that – there’s a delicious sting in the tail in that way that makes me want more.

Similarly, the fourth movement’s abrupt and seemingly unresolved ending leaves me hanging. Sibelius’s depiction of a string musical distractions sounds likes an authentic snapshot of real life.

I like it for exactly that reason, but it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

A fierce nurturing energy

That both symphonies in the concert have prompted greater exploration is a testament to the remarkable quality of the Philharmonia’s performance.

Salonnen’s attention to detail is matched by a fierce nurturing energy. A side parting and a noticeably gaunt appearance gives him a not unpleasant wizard-like air too.

Evidence of Salonen’s effect was found in the work of the string section, whose commitment to delivering a wide range of carefully executed sounds and textures made for compelling enterainment.

A real shame then the performance wasn’t recorded. What I recall is being amazed at the distinctive sound the strings were creating. What I’d give to check out my reactions to confirm I wasn’t imagining things.

Kuusisto and Bjarnason

Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, written for soloist Pekka Kuusisto, is a captivating creation – given its UK premiere during the concert.

The work is packed full of arresting sound worlds created for the orchestra and solo violin, geared not only for the instrumentalist, but also with the audience in mind.

This work grabbed and held attention not least because violinst Pekka Kuusisto has such a remarkable energy about him.

Kuusisto is the only performer around at the moment whose presence and playing creates a dangerously seductive air (watch him in his Edinburgh International Festival session last year, and you might see what I mean). There’s a spirited sense of integrity too in the way he speaks about his craft and about the concerto.

The combination of Salonen, Kuusisto and thought-provoking works by Sibelius and Thorvaldsdottir, made this a memorable start to the Philharmonia’s exciting new season.

And whilst orchestral concert seasons aren’t competitive in anyway, I can’t help but call this one. The Philharmonia has the edge over the LSO, even with Rattle.

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