In the annals of mad Where's Runnicles dashes in search of high culture, Friday's trip to London to hear Sakari Oramo conduct some Sibelius is probably only edged off the top spot only by a mid-festival literally flying visit to the Proms in 2007 to hear the man himself conduct Götterdämmerung. (Certainly at 25 hours between departures, it edges out my brother's trip to hear Louis Lortie's extraordinary Liszt at Snape of which, with hindsight, I am extremely jealous.) Originally, I had intended to stay in London all weekend, but then I discovered James Lowe was to conduct the Rose Street Ensemble in Edinburgh on Saturday in a programme including Poulenc's organ concerto. Being a big fan of both Lowe and the RSE, this was not to be missed either.
Why on earth would you want to know any of that? I mention it to underscore just how exciting a prospect I think the opportunity to hear Oramo in Sibelius is - namely that it's worth a trip that in effective terms probably made mine the most expensive ticket in the hall. I also say it because, with a not especially full hall, I wonder if some of London knew what they were missing. Indeed, I'm doubly envious as this is the second Sibelius cycle the city has enjoyed in the last couple of years (not too long ago the LPO did one under Osmo Vanska), whereas we haven't had one in Scotland since 2006 (though we are getting a couple of symphonies this year).
Sibelius didn't arrive until the second half of the concert, which instead opened with Arnold Bax's Tintagel, named for a village on the Cornish coast. From the powerful and glittering opening onwards, through the satisfyingly swelling climaxes, Oramo made a powerful case for the composer. The piece contains some fine writing, particularly the surging strings, fittingly evocative of the sea. Indeed, visual stimulation is a quality the piece shares with much of Sibelius's output, if not perhaps quite so strongly. There are other nice touches too, such as some fine brass fanfares. The piece does sprawl a little, though Oramo kept a tight rein on it. All in all, it made an effective start to the evening.
This series of Sibelius symphonies sees them paired with works by contemporary Finnish composers. This is an area Oramo knows well, not least from his time with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (now, alas, drawing to a close). In this first concert we heard Kaija Saariaho's Leino Songs, four settings of the eponymous poet. In textual terms, I was not entirely convinced, though in fairness it is hard to judge poetry in translation. Soprano Anu Komsi gave an impressive performance in what often seemed a rather tricky part, especially some of the soft, high, sustained notes that Saariaho called for. The orchestral writing was rather fine, and her use of percussion was especially well judged, providing some rich and varied textures. The final song, Iltarukous (Evening Prayer), with its repeated refrains such as "Night, night, night," or "Fly, fly, fly," was for me the most effective.
So to the second half, and what I had made the journey for: Sibelius. For me, Oramo ranks among the finest interpreters out there. He has a special place in my affections having, together with the CBSO, introduced me to the composer with a cracking performance of the 5th at Basingstoke (some years before this blog came to be). Since then, his cycle with the same orchestra has become one of my favourites and he has dazzled in the 1st symphony and Finlandia with his Finnish Orchestra at the Edinburgh festival. More recently, Proms audiences had the chance to hear him in the 6th.
Last night, however, they began with Luonnotar, not a work I have been particularly drawn to. I now suspect that may be because I hadn't heard it live. On stage it was filled with drama, not least due to Komsi's commanding and characterful presence, especially and emotionally piercingly as she uttered the lines of Luonnotar and the gull, for the latter raising her arms as if she really was gliding down to the sea. It was a compelling performance all round and her drama was every bit matched by the fine playing Oramo drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, their accompaniment always sensitive to the soloist.
The concert closed with the 3rd symphony. Here was an excellent choice to showcase Oramo's abilities with Sibelius. His are readings which are not overdone, but which still brim over with drama and energy, yet also allow the music room to breath (unlike the last, and horribly rushed, live 3rd I attended). From the low opening on the cellos, then to the violas and finally the wisely undivided violins, the music built and bloomed. The violas have more, or at least more exposed, work than is often the case, but they rose to the occasion, as indeed did everyone else, from the bass to the fine bowing of the violins or Julie Price's rich bassoon solos. In their hands, the surging, sweeping themes that occur throughout the work were nicely satisfying and helped it make an effective bookend with Tintagel. More so than the Bax, this is music which is exceptionally visually evocative, especially under such a baton. Together, Oramo and the orchestra found beauty in the slow movement, especially in the pizzicato sections, as the winds danced above the strings. Oramo would never be in danger of falling into the trap of wallowing here, but neither did he go too far the other way. He drove well into the finale, here, as throughout, showing an excellent grasp of the structure of the piece, ensuring a suitably rousing finish as the brass returned.
David Nice, in his Arts Desk review wishes that Oramo had been engaged for the remaineder of the cycle. I know exactly what he means. Actually, if I'm honest, I'm glad he hasn't, but only for the rather selfish reason that that might have proved extremely expensive! That said, I can't help but notice the following: Oramo's tenure at the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra ends next May and Jiří Bělohlávek's contract with the BBC SO ends in 2012 as well.... Based on last night, Oramo ticks all the boxes, excelling with both new music and British music, he also seemed well liked by the orchestra (as far as one can judge such things). I've heard excellent Janáček, Wagner and Nielsen from him in concert too. Doubtless pleasing Where's Runnicles will not be at the top of the selection committee's agenda, but fingers crossed nonetheless.
In the meantime, I note from the programme biography that Oramo is due to record Elgar's symphonies with his Stockholm Orchestra. Following on from their excellent Schumann cycle, and more importantly his commanding and impressively fresh performances of The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom with the CBSO over a single weekend in 2006, these should be a treat. (Alas, only Gerontius ever made it to disc.) I also note that he has recorded Bruckner's 3rd symphony with them. Given his thrilling account of the 1st in Edinburgh a few years back, this would be exciting, were it not for the fact that it appears only to have been released in Japan (if anyone reading this can improve Exton's distribution, we'd be grateful). Perhaps we should rename as where's Oramo!
The concert was broadcast live and will be available on iPlayer until Friday 4th November.