Friday, 22 August 2008

The Finns

It hadn't occurred to me, but as one of the International Festival staff I ran into during the interval pointed out to me, it is unusual to have conductor, orchestra and soloist all of the same nationality (and, indeed, composer). Based on the quality of this result it should happen more often.

The return of Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra was one of the highlights that leapt out at me when the programme was published in April. And while my venue management commitments at Fringe Venue 40 have somewhat curtailed my concert going this year, I knew that this was a concert wild horses wouldn't keep me from. The energy and dynamism that Oramo brought to Bruckner's first symphony as he opened the cycle of the composer's symphonies in McMaster's final year as director (2006) was an exceptional experience and I was most glad it might be repeated. Better yet, the programme: Oramo is for my money among the finest Sibelians, his recent cycle with the Finns, broadcast on Radio 3 last year, testifies to this. The icing on the cake was some Janacek in the first half.

It's always a problem with concerts like this, that such expectations can be tough to fulfil. From the opening bars of Janacek's From the House of the Dead prelude I suspected that would not be the case here. The orchestra had a wonderfully rich sound and Oramo brought out some lovely details in the score. It was also nice to see some informative programme notes Janacek expert Mark Audus whom I know via the Radio 3 messageboards.

They were then joined on stage by soprano Karita Mattila for the prayer scene from Jenufa. Her voice is older and thinner than is ideal for this role but her performance was so wonderfully characterised that such concerns were displaced. She bestrode the stage in her bare feet acting with every fibre in her body. Beneath her Oramo and the orchestra provided a superb accompaniment: in particular during the frenzy leading up to her fainting - here is a fine example of Janacek's skill in matching music to drama, and the playing was stunning.

The last item in the first half was Tatyana's letter scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. This better suited her voice (although it too is a young character). It was followed by a folk sounding encore the identification of which was beyond my ken.

It is not too long since I had my last encounter with Sibelius's first symphony in the concert hall, last time it was Oramo's compatriot Esa Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic at the Babrican. It was also deeply disappointing. As noted above, I had higher hopes for Oramo.

A superbly played solo clarinet (doubtless that of Christoffer Sundqvist, the orchestra's principal) accompanied expertly by the timpanist (presumably Lassi Erkkila) made for a spellbinding opening. The first entrance of the strings was sufficiently icy if not quite of Bernsteinian chill. The sheer power they brought to the climaxes was impressive, as was the orchestra's ability to turn for Oramo on a dine (whether it be a change in tempo or volume). There was plenty of sweep to the reading as well and while it was briskly taken it didn't feel it. A smattering of applause greeted the end of the first movement and while this reviewer didn't join in, he certainly sympathised. This was followed by the stunning beauty of the andante, mixed with absolutely frenzied climaxes. Superb pizzicato playing was on display in the third movement, along with no shortage of energy, and not much too fast as it was with the LA Philharmonic. The finale was little short of thrilling, and while there was not shortage of power in the climaxes there was also incredible delicacy when called for. Throughout, Oramo judged his volumes well, loud when needed but never deafening (unlike some reports of Gergiev's Prokofiev I have heard which indicate that everything is double forte or more); he also knows the power of playing very quietly at times and can bring it off with this exceptional band.

I'm not normally a fan of encores, but this concert contained what was surely an exception. Oramo turned to the audience to introduce it, however he spoke quietly and all I heard was something about a bit of London (I thought this was possibly a little impolitic given the location). Then the opening bars sounded. This was not London, this was most definitely Finland, definitely Sibelius and definitely something of a party piece for this team. It was the familiar bars of Finlandia. Now it's a great showpiece and Oramo has, for my money, one of the finest accounts on disc (with the CBSO rather than the Finns, part of a superb cycle). This was everything I might have expected. Sometimes when an orchestra plays an encore they do a lot you get a hint of routine. No so here. Beautiful, powerful and thrilling. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

A note to those in charge of the festival, for the love of everything holy: beg, borrow or steal in necessary, but do for goodness sake get this team back next year, and the next, and the next....... Here's a thought, Jonathan Mills is clearly more of a fan of Sibelius than McMaster was, perhaps Oramo could be persuaded to bring an entire cycle, including Kullervo?

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