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Sibelius symphonies

Symphony No.3 in C, op.39 (1904/1907)
Höstkväll [Autumn Evening], op.38/1 (1902/1904) Den första kyssen [The first kiss], op.37/1 (1900/1902) Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte [The maid came from her lover’s tryst], op.37/5 (1900/1902) Bollspelet vid Trianon [Tennis at Trianon], op.36/3 (1899) Arioso, op.3 (1911) Hertig Magnus [Duke Magnus], op.57/6 (1909) Var det en dröm? [Was it a dream?], op.37/4 (1900/1902)

Symphony No.2 in D, op.43 (1902)


Helena Juntunen – soprano
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä


Royal Festival Hall, London: 30 January 2010


The 3rd could, rightly, be considered to be Sibelius’s “English” Symphony, because it is dedicated to Granville Bantock; one of the Finnish composer’s staunchest champions in this country. The first movement is intended to represent fog in the English Channel. 


It also has claim to being Sibelius’s most classical Symphony, so well defined are the musical processes employed. It does the music a disservice to use it as a concert opener.


Vänskä directed a spritely performance with a well prepared LPO. The first movement was certainly the requisite fog filled seascape – complete with foghorn–like sounds from the horns – and the scurrying strings lent a feel of disorientation to the proceedings. The slow movement variations, not on a theme but on a sonority and a continually changing orchestration, was a delight, especially the middle section for multiple divided cellos, but the finale, which is an early attempt to mold two movements into one – a device Sibelius so successfully achieved in the first movement of the 5th Symphony – suffered from not being sufficiently tightly directed. That said, Vänskä brought about a fine, satisfying conclusion.


There were rather more problems in the performance of the 2nd Symphony which ended the programme. In the first movement the same sense of hurry which spoiled parts of the 1st in an earlier concert, was evident here, but it was rather the feel of impatience, and champing at the bit rather than a too fast tempo; it was uncomfortable whatever way you looked at it. The long slow movement, however, with its myriad changes of mood and emotion, was superbly handled, with Vänskä allowing each section its own character and voice. Especially memorable was when the strings, in an exquisite moment of superb pianissimo, played their B major tune to absolute, and heart breaking, perfection. The scherzo was suitably prestissimo and the finale was broad and stately, but the brass section was allowed to dominate to the detriment of the rest of the orchestra. But this was playing of the very highest standard and it was marvelous to hear such rounded and full tone from the brass and strings and such richly balanced sound from the wind band.


Between the Symphonies Helena Juntunen gave seven of Sibelius’s underrated, and almost unknown, songs. Ms Juntunen is the possessor of a fine dramatic voice, which she put to good use in some of the more dramatic songs, but what impressed most was her humour, as heard in the bizarre Bollspelet vid Trianon [Tennis at Trianon] or her magnificent restraint, as in the beautiful Arioso.


Overall, a very fine show.  


Bob Briggs

See also The Guardian - " - - the world's greatest Sibelius interpreter conducting the music that he has done more than any other living musician to promote - " [Editor]


Cantique & Devotion Op 77

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Symphony No.6
Symphony No. 7

Kristina Blaumane, cello
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä


Royal Festival Hall, London: 5 February 2010


We were not allotted seats to cover the concert with the 4th & 5th symphonies, and this final concert of the series proved to be a bewildering evening and, as reported above, another one with unsatisfactory ordering.

Tapiola is not an obvious starter, but it certainly served to show the LPO in extremely good health, responding with a will and gorgeous saturated tone to everything Vänskä required of them.


But this Tapiola was not of the 'ancient, mysterious, brooding' northern forests of Finland; more akin to tropical rainforests in the sumptuous sound quality of this example of Vänskä's 'intense and dynamic' performances. At one point he refined the strings to a whispering extreme pianissimo to let the woodwind come through strongly; which they did, though in piquant duet with a prolonged mobile phone counterpoint... This was followed with the two quickly forgettable little cello pieces, played rather reticently by the LPO's lead cellist, they leading to the premature interval.


The second half was altogether more satisfying. The refined 6th symphony, characterised discouragingly in Andrew Mellor's programme note as the 'Cinderella' of the cycle, is in fact maybe the most eventfully dense of them all, a strenuous listening experience for those who can take in all that happens, bar by bar and phrase by phrase. It is both cooler and richer than most of the others and would better have been placed before the interval, to become a talking point amongst the drinks. Instead, it was followed immediately by the equally demanding, indeed quite exhausting, one movement seventh.


Both these great works were characterised superbly by Vänskä, without any of the excesses that disturbed me in the over-heated Tapiola tonight, and made Mr Briggs uncomfortable in the 2nd Symphony the previous weekend.


The orchestral sound from our allotted seat (near the side in row DD) was full and good, but quite seriously marred by the pervasive noise of the Royal Festival Hall's lighting system as mentioned in our review of Barenboim's Beethoven there.

Peter Grahame Woolf