Concert: Sibelius Symphonies - LPO/Vänskä

A quick review of the 3 February Concert at London's Royal Festival Hall by London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Osmo Vänskä. The programme was:

Sibelius Luonnotar (Tone poem for soprano and orchestra)
Sibelius Symphony 4
Sibelius Symphony 5

Helena Juntunen soprano was the soloist in Luonnotar. I heard the broadcast live and then revisited it during the week using BBC iPlayer.

I have had problems with the way this orchestra and Vänskä work together over the years: they've been responsible for some of my most uncomfortable moments in the concert hall and although things were better in parts this time - the same old problems seem to me to be present - there are signs they are beginning to understand each other.

I imagine a great deal of rehearsal time went into Luonnotar because it was fantastic. Juntunen is a real star and brought a great deal of drama too her reading. The LPO were alert and the playing colourful and the intricacies of the score were beautifully realised.

I've never heard the piece take on such a epic quality: it is about the creation of the world and elemental forces were summoned up when required. But the singer also has moments of great intimacy in her storytelling and these were realised with gorgeous intensity. Vänskä is renowned for bringing the sound levels right down and the LPO responded well.

The Fourth Symphony was given by Vänskä and this orchestra in London a couple of years ago and the reading did seem to have benefited from that. But there are I think two problems they have together: first there's a real problem of balance and care - there were too many instances of detail being swapped in a way that doesn't happen when Vänskä conducts say the BBC Symphony Orchestra (to pick an ensemble he conducts as regularly as LPO). This may partly about radio microphone placement and balance but I have heard it too often in the concert hall to think its just an artifact of that. The second problem is a reticence which holds the flow of the music back: I'm not sure if this is a trust issue or sloppiness or something technical - but it doesn't happen when Vänskä conducts the Minnesotans.

Vänskä in his pre-concert interview talked of not being convinced of the symphony's reputation for desolation, and for that might he doesn't hold with the idea of triumphalism at the end of the Fifth Symphony. He may just be contrary - but his Fourth has a great deal of the spareness required to render it's stark mood.

As a reading it bares all the hallmarks of Vänskä's Sibelius interpretations on record - vivid, subtle, impetuous and impulsive (both in a very good way) but something was holding it back (less so than two years ago) but it seldom felt unfettered.

I heard Vänskä conduct Sibelius Fifth symphony in a concert in Manchester many years ago and a friend listening to the radio at the time said he thought Furtwangler was conducting. When I first heard the reading in this concert I felt is was by someone trying to do an impression of Furtwangler conducting: so quixotic, so spontaneous that the page sprang with life. Of course Furtwangler's spontaneity was largely contrived (as recordings demonstrate) and Furtwangler only worked in that sense with orchestras who were especially attuned to his way of conducting. My feeling was that this Fifth was trying to get there but because of the above problems between conductor and orchestra, it fell someway short of an inspirational spontaneity.

It sound hurried and impatient both with the music and with the performance itself. The orchestra playing seemed to me to be much less sure-footed than the Fourth Symphony which compounded my view that this orchestra takes a long time to understand what's wanted. As a reading it left me yearning for more and actually questioning whether Vänskä isn't conducting this music too frequently. His Eroica with the Minnesotans this time last year in London skirted with this problem.

Sadly the BBC don't appear to be broadcasting any more of what was a complete cycle of Sibelius Symphonies given by the pairing and one can only hope they appear on CD at some stage to help us assess how Vänskä's readings have moved on since his cycle with the Lahti Symphony orchestra. The LPO have a fine tradition: but bringing a great conductor and a great orchestra together doesn't always work.

A final thought: the reviews from the national press I've read and the heard quoted are largely silent on the problems I've referred to. I'm not even going to bother speculating why this is - but these were readings from the workshop - not masterpieces (though Luonnotar maybe the exception there), in my humble opinion.


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Anonymous said…
Good review! I have this concert as an old mP3 archive (bootleg comes from ??) sounds pretty damn good to me at least the recorded sound is quite ok orchestral direction from one of the top sibelians

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