Only days after his final performances as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, a tenure culminating with a well-received, globally streamed cycle of Sibelius symphonies, Sakari Oramo conducted again the Finnish master’s Second Symphony in the Berlin Philharmonie. It was a rendition in which Oramo did not provide any particularly new insights into the music but, relying on a magnificent orchestral apparatus, clearly brought forward the score’s modernism. From the first encounter with a three-note motif to the triumphant Finale (that sounded Tchaikovskian at times), disparate themes and structures melted into each other. Differences between bucolic southern landscapes with chirping birds and reminiscences of misty, lugubrious northern surroundings were less evident than they potentially could have been. In the second movement, the conflicts between the two themes (representing death and salvation) or between the anxiety-filled brass climaxes and the tensioned cesurae were not overly romanticized. Special moments included not only the terrific brass playing, but also the bassoons intoning the first theme of the Andante over the lower strings’ pizzicato or the brief and tender dialogue between Albrecht Mayer’s oboe and Ludwig Quandt’s cello in the Trio.

Sakari Oramo, Sunwook Kim and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Frederike van der Straeten

The initially announced programme was supposed to have been conducted by Alan Gilbert. Oramo replaced non-standard works by Webern and Brahms with a Sibelius symphony with which he is extremely familiar, but still had to prepare, on a short notice, Unsuk Chin’s Piano Concerto, a difficult score not only for the pianist, but for the conductor and orchestra as well. The first of her several concertos, the work, conceived in 1996-97, has found a true champion in Sunwook Kim, the composer’s compatriot. Mostly following the traditional structure of a concerto (except the third movement comprising thirty motivic fragments on top of two harmonic pillars – as Chin herself explained in her introductory notes), the work has several traits that make it unique. There is no competition between soloist and ensemble, despite the composer placing a 19th-century-like emphasis on the soloist’s virtuosity; piano and orchestral sounds are just melded together into a series of uninterrupted waves. With an extraordinary command of the difficult piano part, Sunwook Kim graciously accepted a primus inter pares role. As in Ligeti’s oeuvre, there is a shift of emphasis from melody and harmony to timbre and texture that everyone involved – soloist, conductor, orchestra – adopted remarkably well. Influenced by Balinese gamelan music, Chin significantly extends the percussion section of the orchestra with metal-keyed instruments that bring unexpectedly new colors to the overall soundscape. In addition to that, the composer simultaneously employs different rhythmic patterns, making the conductor’s task even more challenging. But Oramo is a consummate maestro and, given the circumstances, he acquitted himself well in this daunting task.

Sunwook Kim, Sakari Oramo and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Frederike van der Straeten

Winner of the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006, when he was just 18, Sunwook Kim is hardly a top presence on the concert circuit. Making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker on this occasion, he proved his ability to bring personal touches to the standard repertoire in a brief encore – Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118 no. 2 – offering a reading of great simplicity and delicacy, with beautifully shaped phrases.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream