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Review: Osmo Vänskä Conducts the Music of Sibelius, Sydney Symphony Orchestra

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This concert put the North on full display. A Finnish composer and Finnish singer brought the works of a famed Finnish composer to life.

The program reflected Sibelius’ deep-seated national pride. The elemental force of his music – driven by a love for the folkish epic, runes and tales – could be felt throughout.

The first was a symphony named after a Finnish folk tale, Pohjola’s Daughter. Although it has all the hallmarks of a tone poem, it is really a pastiche of three poetic settings. A meandering chant-like melody on cello is soon joined by the bassoons, before the strings sweep us into forward motion trudging, as it were, through the snow.

A series of shimmering glissandos on the harp then gives us a sense of Väinämöinen’s vision of the maiden, Pohjola’s daughter. The build-ups were a moment to behold, and there is a glacial, almost menacing, series of dissonant shrieks on the strings which look forward to Psycho. Each member of the strings section seemed visibly to relish the moment, as they were pitted against each other in contrario motu. But after all this intensity, the final bars fade away into the frigid landscape, leaving the impression of a distant fleeting dream.

The landscape had now been set for the songs to follow. Sibelius’ Höstkväll (Autumn Night) began much like the preceding symphony – with a bleak minor chord blared out, most noticeably, by the horns. Helena Juntunen makes her entrance with a forceful lamenting line. The music is bare. There is something almost glacial in its strength and in its gradual development. If there is any doubt about the scene’s frigid landscape – “And the clouds wander in woeful mood / Beyond the foaming lake” – the barest of tremolos sul ponticello cuts through the voice. Again, the strings fade away at the end, but the tone is unmistakably full-blooded and sinewy. The soft lyricism of the South is nowhere to be seen. But Juntunen’s voice gave nothing short of a passionate narrative. 

With the Hertig Magnus (Count Magnus), the tone becomes more urbane, almost waltzy. Its ballad style pushes the narrative forward with energy. Juntunen despatches the many elegant turns and embellishments with a glittering ease.

Sibelius’ The Bard is something of a change of pace. It is eerily intimate and has a subtlety that draws the keen listener in. It cannot often be said that the harp can be the centre of an orchestral work, but here it can. There is no clear narrative, no overt didacticism, no obvious word-painting. Yet there is a very real feeling of ancient mystery, and the bardic tale-telling is captured nicely on the harp. Motifs – although they are not so much motifs as vague thematic suggestions – are tossed about the orchestra. Osmo Vänskä makes sure that the heated passages on the strings and brass do not dispel the overall sense of space and introspection.

Again, the Lemminkäinen Suite is a set of four tone poems based on Finnish epic tales. The first movement, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, relates the exploits of the hero of the national epic, the Kalevala. The harmonies are unstable and the melodies rhapsodic. Some musical lines emerge on first violin but are often interrupted and taken nowhere. The orchestra emphasised this episodic tone nicely.

In the second, The Swan of Tuonela, the swan’s song can be heard in the form of a long cor anglaise solo by Alexandre Oguey among a thicket of shimmering tremolos which evokes the landscape of the Finnish Hades. There are some Wagnerian climaxes in this and the following movements. But this is no old-hat Romanticism. Nor is there any overt Wagnerian sensuality. There is no hyped bombast, or over-ripe lyricism. In the explosive outbursts of savage despair, especially in the third movement, Sibelius and the orchestra make conspicuous use of the deeper registers – cellos, bassoon and timpani – to great effect. And through it all Vänskä manoeuvred the crests and troughs of this tumultuous suite with ease.

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