Sibelius – whose unique voice straddles Romanticism, folk music, and the inklings of Modernism – can be a tricky composer to perform. His lush, expansive sonorities can sound simply loud and louder, plowing over the singable melodies and tiny gestures later transformed into full-blown themes.

Sir Colin Davis  ©  Alberto Venzago
Sir Colin Davis
©

Not so in the hands of Sir Colin Davis. At 84, he is a preeminent interpreter of Sibelius, having recorded three complete cycles of the symphonies and conducted his works with the world’s best orchestras. This performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Second Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra had everything you could ask for – sonority so vivid you could touch it, yet a clarity that brought out nuances that are sometimes lost. If this balance came at the expense of a more energetic drive, or was accompanied by some moments of rhythmic discombobulation, so be it. The audience and the players were too enthralled to notice.

The program began with the composer’s only violin concerto, an attempt to marry his atmospheric Finnish style with the virtuosic conventions of the form. The piece is equally virtuosic for the orchestra as it is for the soloist, with lively dialogue and sharp contrasts between them. From the first notes of the inspired opening – violins playing rapid eighth notes in thirds, creating the illusion of suspended time – soloist Nikolaj Znaider gave an inward-looking performance with a tone that stayed vibrant even at the very point of his bow. When the soloist plays a duet with the principal violist – a trick you won’t find in standard Romantic violin concertos – the hand-muted outbursts from the horns had a presence I had never heard before. An aggressive orchestral section follows, featuring Sibelius’ signature technique of a driving melody in the strings played over a drone in the winds. Here the strings retained fullness of tone, but in their excitement a few scratches were heard.

The first movement features numerous moments carried entirely by the soloist, and Znaider’s tone was so present that you hardly noticed that the orchestra had stopped playing with him. But Davis played up the fierce contrasts of the piece, such as when the orchestra comes crashing down in the middle of the soloist’s cadenza, only to twist their way into a hopeful theme played by the oboe.

The second movement, while in simple, A-B-A form, is so expansive and intense that it can be difficult to sustain in a way that makes sense. Davis kept the orchestra in a state of measured urgency while the solo line soared overhead. The ensemble played the silences as musically as they played the notes.

The third movement is another contrast, a frantic military clip that seems to conquer the ambivalence and doubt of the previous movement. It was fun to watch the first violist’s feet during the tango-like rhythms that accompanied the soloist’s dancelike lines – back, front and up, back, front and up. Znaider polished off the closing virtuosic runs with effortless flair. Called to the stage again and again, he gave an encore of the sarabande from Bach’s second partita, which he dedicated to Sir Colin.

Critics often point out the Second Symphony’s indebtedness to Russian music, although its form is more interesting than the standard thematic development of earlier Romantic symphonies: instead of long melodies, we have motives and gestures that are eventually woven together. As Sibelius said, “it is as though the almighty had thrown the pieces of a mosaic down from the floor of heaven and told me to put them together.”

From its premiere, the work has often been interpreted as an expression of Finnish patriotism; Finland was under oppressive Russian rule at the time. Sibelius himself disclaimed this interpretation, noting that he was capable writing both programmed music and the more abstract symphonic form.

Davis led the ensemble with a subtle hand, keeping up the gentle pace of the rustic first movement, and playing up the emotional contrasts of the second, which ranges from mysterious to plaintive to furious. The frenetic third movement was actually a bit under tempo, proceeding measuredly into the grand, uplifting finale. Now and then, complicated rhythms would take a second to line up between sections. But the glorious effect – whether Finnish pride or otherworldly transport – came through to everyone, as even the ensemble applauded their maestro.

London Symphony OrchestraAmanda Keil2011-10-19Amanda Keil reviews the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis and Nikolaj Znaider playing Sibelius at Avery Fisher Hall4