I've only heard Osmo Vanska live once before, that too was for an all Sibelius programme where he provided the highlight of the BBC SSO's 2006 cycle with blinding readings of the third symphony and Kullervo (which was sadly absent from the London Philharmonic's cycle).
We seem to get precious little Sibelius north of the border so these concerts were sorely tempting, but in the end only one concert was a realistic prospect. Fortunately that one contained the sixth and seventh, two of my absolute favourites (along with, in no particular order, three, one, four, two and five).
They began, however, with Tapiola. Composed some years after the last two symphonies it seemed a slightly odd choice. I must confess the work has never completely grabbed me in the way his symphonies do. I found it a little disjointed and while the orchestra played well enough, it didn't seem as vividly textured as the best Sibelius can: the string motifs evocative of icy winds felt neither quite icy or windy enough. It was not without its moments, but it didn't sweep me away.
It was followed by a pair of oddities Cantique and Devotion: Two Serious Melodies for Cello and Orchestra. These were rather nice, and Sibelius at his sunniest rather than the wintery feel that is more common. Kristina Blaumane was a rich and warm soloist. Yet, enjoyable though they were, one could see why they're not a regular feature in the concert hall.
The best by far was yet to come. The sixth symphony is achingly beautiful and Vanska judged the opening well. Everything felt sharper - the tones of the orchestra richer and move vivid. He gave the music a wonderful flow. The third movement was almost overflowing with joy. There was some fine playing from the orchestra, especially some of the rich cello chords in the finale. Yes, the sixth is my favourite. It has a beauty that at times brings the listener close to tears, though not because it's sad. True, Vanska didn't equal Barbirolli in this regard, but he got more than close enough.
They closed with the seventh, the first Sibelius symphony I ever heard (in a performance by Oramo and the CBSO in Basingstoke). Bad performances of it suffer terribly from what I like to call Mahler Nine Syndrome, namely the tendency both works have to sound like a disconnected series of miniatures when played badly (it's named after the Mahler because that's where I first heard it). There was not a trace in Vanska's reading, which flowed seamlessly from one section to the next. Indeed, as with all good performances, I was left wondering how Mahler Nine Syndrome can ever occur in the first place. Along the way Vanska found some wonderful details, an early section with the violas stuck out particularly. Then came perhaps my favourite moment: the wonderful trombone theme, but then I'm a trombone player, albeit a very bad one. He judged the balance well, with the theme carrying clearly over the orchestra and yet without being overly prominent. If anything, the orchestra seemed on even better form than for the sixth. I don't like 'top this' lists and 'greatest thats', but if you told me I could only keep one symphony in my collection, the seventh would surely be near the top of the shortlist. Within those twenty-two odd minutes Sibelius somehow manages to say everything that needs to be said. As the trombones make their return, with what I like to call the journey's end motif, I feel like I've been on an epic voyage; Vanska was no exception and he had showed plenty of wonders along the way. Actually, there's no question, the seventh is my favourite.
Okay, the truth is my favourite is probably whichever one I've just heard last. They're glorious works and well done to the LPO for celebrating them with one of the top Sibelius conductors.
It was well received, but the encore, Valse Triste, was a mistake. After the seventh nothing more needs to be said, and though they played it nicely, and Vanska clearly had fun, particularly with a pause at the end, the evening would in some ways have been finer without it: those weren't the bars I wanted ringing in my head as I left. True, it was not as if he'd followed Mahler's resurrection with an encore, and hence he doesn't get our inappropriate encore away.
Still, I do need to dole out an award. Etiquette for encores is tricky. If you decide to make your exit before the applause has ceased, you run an inverse musical chairs. Should the music start up again you have only one decent choice: freeze and, if you are lucky, sink into a vacant seat nearby. If you're very close to a door you can nip out the rest of the way, ditto if you have a exceedingly quiet step. Why do I mention this, you may well ask? Well, a gentleman, no, sorry, that's a serious abuse of the word. A person in the audience chose a third way: from three quarters of the way up the second aisle of the balcony, he clomped down the stairs and out of the hall, treading with what was clearly deliberate force, with a furious expression on his face as if to demand how very dare Vanska interrupt his exit with some music. It was staggeringly rude to players and audience alike. I mean, I might have preferred not to have an encore, but I have some manners. Of course, this presents a slight snag as far as our awards are concerned, since they are always eponymous, but we can rise to the occasion:
The Anonymous/[insert name here] Award for Staggeringly Rude and Unbelievably Obnoxious Behaviour by an Audience Member
If the person in question is reading this, and would like to claim his award, or apologise, the comments are below. However, it was not sufficient to detract from the superb music. Now, if only we could get a little more Sibelius north of the border.....