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.

BBC Proms 2017 / 2: Sibelius Violin Concerto / Elgar Symphony No. 1

I worried last night, but didn’t know why.

Now I do. Now I’ve heard Sibelius Violin Concerto and Elgar 1 from Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, things seem like they’re back on track.

Tonight was epic, an effortless and passionate evocation of feelings I didn’t realise I needed to confront.

The Sibelius was rich and rewarding. Elgar helped heal wounds. I feel enriched and invigorated.

Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore seemed like a deliciously ambiguous ending. The subsequent Pomp and Circumstance march felt like a clumsy and unnecessary addition.

That said, an easy 5/5 (via radio)

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 / Philharmonia / Ashkenazy

Stephen Hough’s Telegraph blog urging us not to shut out the older generation in pursuit of a younger replacement resonated last night during the Philharmonia’s all-Sibelius programme with Vladminir Ashkenazy.

At 77, the conductor demonstrated his enthusiasm for the art, and an enviable energy as he darted on and off the stage to accept some of the applause at the end of last night’s concert at the Festival Hall.

There had been some memorable moments during the first half – the second and fourth movements from the Pelléas et Mélisande excerpts and the Andante Festivo – which were echoed during the symphony in the second half. Ashkenazy may have seemed in a hurry in places, especially during the final movement of the symphony, but his particular attention to extreme dynamic ranges created an electrifying atmosphere.

I was really taken with the sound the Philharmonia’s string section created throughout this concert. A joyous experience reflected in the smiles of the players when the audience applauded. Smiling orchestral players are a rare sight at the end of UK concerts.




#Classical365: 5 – Sibelius Symphony No.6

I am 14 stone 10 pounds. I weighed myself before I went to the gym. I was amazed, appalled and slightly sickened. Thank God I didn’t know that before I signed up for gym membership. That would have been completely the wrong motivation for committing to a year-long exercise contract. I left the house disappointed with myself, but with unshakeable resolve.

Discovering what my weight was post-Christmas may not have put me in the best frame of mind for listening to Sibelius 6 today.

Former colleague (sort of) Ant Miller suggested the work after I put out a tweet for recommendations. I only know two Sibelius symphonies – 2 & 5. Here was an opportunity to discover something new and in the process remind me that my listening repertoire isn’t quite as broad as I thought it was.

Sibelius 6 is bizarre. It starts with the bleakest of introductions. Someone or something has been abandoned. Crushed. On its last legs. There’s a stabbing with a rusty kitchen knife at 2’14” – the subtlest of orchestrations but enough to underline an unexpectedly chilling chord. Will whatever it is be healed? At this point I’m not sure. All I am sure of is that I’ve been completely taken by surprise. Maybe that’s the point.

There’s a hint of the rest of the world carrying on around the subject. From time to time we skirt around vaguely familiar sounds in more orthodox settings offering potential respite. But come the end of the first movement it feels to me as though we’re still wrapped up in the hurt, whatever that hurt is. If there is joy, then its someone else’s joy being observed by someone who sees it as something he’ll never obtain.

It’s not a self-indulgent or sentimental kind of pain. The opening of the second movement confirms that for me. Come the mid-point of the second movement there’s an overwhelming sense of loneliness accompanied by one very potent question: will we ever get to a point where whatever is causing this is resolved? Will there be redemption? The likelihood seems very, very slim.

A brief escape at the beginning of the third movement. Something exciting is going on with a dribble of hope thrown in just to tempt us. If Sibelius is going to deliver us a triumphant end, we’re going to embark on a monumental trans-formative journey from this point on.

That transformation isn’t made explicit at the beginning of the fourth. There’s been a subtle shift in mood – comparing the opening of the first movement with the opening theme of the fourth for example suggest that the dark clouds have lifted – but its brief. Once the allegro molto gets underway proper the image being painted is that the world is imperfect and that we’ve got to find a way of navigating our way through it.

I don’t think its that Sibelius can’t give us unequivocal redemption, just that to do so wouldn’t be especially authentic of the world as he experiences it.

I might add, I don’t actually know this is as fact – they’re just the thoughts that emerge as I listen to the symphony for the first time during the 20 minutes cardio.

I’m on the leg presses by the time the symphony comes to an end. I pause for a moment, catching my breath in between sets. I like this work because it poses more questions than it answers (Britten was being typically Britten when he dismissed Sibelius’ 6th). And I like it because at the end of the work we return emotionally somewhere very close to where we began. Life is a struggle. You’re not going to be transformed in the space of 30 minutes like you do in some other symphonies. Things are going to take a little longer than that.

But, inevitably, I need something to pick me up. I resort to my Eurovision playlist and start on my second set of leg presses just as I spy through the office window in front of me the gym instructors tucking into a cupcake. Swines.

I was listening to a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No.6 given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Berglund on Spotify.

If you’ve got a suggestion for a work for me to listen to, leave a comment below or tweet me @thoroughlygood.

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.