Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sibelian surprises

So, review from Friday night continued: Susanna Mälkki conducted Sibelius 1 in the second half (after Beatrice Rana's glorious playing in the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto in the first).

Susanna Mälkki. Photo: Simon Fowler
About halfway through I opened my programme to check something. I was wondering if it might be a different version of this symphony - an early draft, or perhaps an unknown revision? - because I was hearing things that I'd simply never noticed before. But no, it was Sibelius 1 through and through; it's just that Mälkki (who is herself Finnish, was principal cello in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for several years, and studied conducting with Jorma Panula) took an approach that was light years away from the heavy-duty baked sponge pudding that we so often chew through in this work. All manner of detail became audible; the tempi didn't hang about, because they don't need to; and the pacing of the energy worked a small miracle in the finale.

Sibelius's First Symphony is often, very often, compared to Tchaikovsky - and certainly there are similarities. But Tchaikovsky, well performed, can pay tribute to that composer's passion for Mozart; and here, too, one became aware of the music's classical-era roots: the taut organisation of the four movements, the light-footedness of the lightning bolts near the start, or the timpani-led scherzo. I can't remember how many times I've heard the slow(ish) movement played as a dirge dragging its way through snowy darkness as if it's got frostbite, or the said scherzo thundering along like a herd of elephants. Not necessary; and not so for Mälkki.

The rhythms danced through that scherzo, the energy let the music fly rather than sticking its soles to the ice, and in general the up-tempo approach kept everyone on their toes - while some details that in other hands are blurred emerged sparklingly clear with spot-on ensemble from the good ol' LPO. The finale's big tune is so often milked for every last shred of intensity from its first appearance; instead, it came out warm, strong and dignified, but didn't let rip until the music had built convincingly up to its ultimate appearance third time around, when Mälkki let it go straight for the jugular. This made absolute sense, as well as a superb shape.

But above all, one could hear the layers of texture that make the symphony shimmer from within: the throbbing cross-rhythms at the bottom of the orchestra, destabilising anything that might even consider becoming four-square; the florid harp details lending unexpected glimmers in different cross-rhythms against that Big Tune.

This wasn't a Deeply Tragic View of Life or a Violently Romantic Vision Plunging Into Permafrost Gloom. This was a thrilling first step into the symphonic world by a composer who was going to break extraordinary new ground and was already well on his way. Brava, Mälkki: it was like hearing the piece for the first time.

She has recently been appointed principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and starts there in the 16/17 season. They're on to a very, very good thing. Meanwhile, here's hoping she comes back soon.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it on the iPlayer for another 28 days, here.