Total Immersion in Sibelius sounds a frostbitten affair, a bit like the Finnish ritual of ice swimming after a sauna. Few composers have been so closely identified with the landscapes of their homeland, music teeming with dark forests, vast lakes and desolate skies. Many of those works have a mythological source too and it was these that occupied the two short orchestral concerts of tone poems and orchestral songs featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this day at the Barbican devoted to the mighty Finn, Sibelius the Storyteller. 

Anu Komsi, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

We had the benefit of three narrators. The warm bass of Icelandic-American actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson provided introductions to each of the works in the form of readings, sometimes linked directly to the music, such as the Kalevala tale of Väinämöinen meeting the fair maid of the north (Pohjola’s Daughter), and sometimes not. The evening programme also featured soprano Anu Komsi in two of Sibelius’ songs – The Echo Nymph and Sunrise – along with the other-worldly Luonnotar, a tone poem drawn from the creation myth of the Kalevala in which a duck’s eggs crack open to form the sky, the moon and the stars. Komsi was an absolutely compelling storyteller, her powerful soprano cleaving the air, hands sometimes raised in dramatic pose. 

Our other narrator, of sorts, was Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, who allowed Sibelius’ music to do the talking. Oramo is a master Sibelian, knowing this rugged terrain like the back of his hand. Indeed, sometimes no map was required, guiding his charges through En Saga without the aid of a score, his brisk, no-nonsense baton technique steering a true course. 

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
© BBC | Mark Allan

The brevity of each programme – one hour, no interval – seemed to deter greater audience numbers from turning out, but those who did were rewarded with some excellent performances. Chirruping woodwinds and stirring brass characterised the All’Overtura from the Scènes historiques, but it was En Saga that really impressed in the earlier programme. After a cautious start, the strings feeling their way across the rocking arpeggios, Oramo handled the gradual crescendo and stringendo with aplomb, the brass cutting in with an icy blast. Knotty woodwinds provided animated commentaries, particularly Richard Hosford’s eloquent clarinet. 

The Bard is an enigmatic little work, essentially a harp soliloquy underlined by melancholy strings and winds until an angry brass eruption that soon subsides. Kudos to harpist Louise Martin for her poetic interpolations. Emerging from the gloom – bosky solo cello, oily bass clarinet and mournful cor anglais –  Pohjola’s Daughter was given a gripping reading, packed with incident before eventually subsiding into silence. 

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The evening programme opened with Nightride and Sunrise, a work which usually promises more from its title than it delivers, a lumbering journey although the brassy sunrise, but here, it was arresting. But after the three vocal numbers, the only thing that could possibly top Luonnotar was Tapiola, Sibelius’ last major orchestral work. It portrays Tapio, the forest spirit mentioned in the Kalevala and it’s certainly epic in feel, 15 minutes in which we are plunged deep into the Finnish forest. Oramo and the BBCSO painted a gnarly landscape, low brass glowering magnificently, building to a piercing climax that felt like an icy blast released into the Barbican Hall. Wrap up warm when BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the day’s performances in November.