The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra are back live, at least online, and with a focused programme. Nothing frivolous like a concerto or overture, just two great symphonies whose status was questioned by their first audiences. The Ninth Symphony of Shostakovich, and the Third of Sibelius, once seemed elusive. Both last about 25 minutes, much briefer than the predecessors in their series. Both have smaller instrumental ensembles than had been used before (Sibelius' Third is his most instrumentally parsimonious). So both disappointed the expectations raised by their predecessors. The Russian was expected to provide a tub-thumping victory ode in his 1945 work yet offered a work once dismissed as lightweight. It is formally rather classical, like the Sibelius, which followed his popular nationalist Second Symphony, but with no patriotic anti-Russian stance. Yet its date is 1907 when, as the Finns used to joke, “Russia was still part of Finland”.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

So this was shrewd programming, and the smaller scale of the works made them pandemic friendly. The players, with no screens or over-extravagant distance between them, had space. The GSO men replaced tails with smart dark shirts. As one player observed, getting changed into tails meant more time in close proximity backstage, and cycling to work in full concert dress was unappealing. How to avoid awkwardness when so much has changed? Jukka-Pekka Saraste behaved as if the hall was full, walking on alone once the orchestra had tuned, offering the elbow to his concert master (literally, not metaphorically), bowing to the empty hall. But the conductor was eloquent in both works.

Shostakovich Nine is classical enough to have an exposition repeat and Saraste duly turned back the pages at the double bar-line. Haydnesque too was the mood and the wit of the invention. Saraste treated it as such, resisting any sardonic “look at me thumbing my nose at the apparatchiks” manner. It is still difficult to keep biography and political history out of the interpretation of Shostakovich, but Saraste did, to the work’s benefit. The frequent ff trombone intrusion became just a musical signpost, a rasp not a raspberry. The principal wind players played with fine tone and agility throughout, and the first clarinet launched the second movement with calm intensity. (Lightweight? Shostakovich Nine?) Movements three to five play continuously and Saraste made a virtue of that, with a balance between movements and sections of movements that kept them flowing, and made them feel like one movement. And with little sense of player rustiness. 

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
© Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

The GSO has a reputation both for its own qualities, and those of its hall’s acoustic. “When we go on tour we take our hall with us,” said a player on interview. An habitué of London’s Royal Festival Hall and Barbican might wish this was literally possible rather than a metaphor for “our playing is always spacious, warm and detailed”. I have a benchmark for that sound in a live recording of Sibelius’ Third with this orchestra in this hall. The opening for cellos and basses on that is ear-tickling in the sheer presence, tangibility, weight and warmth of the strings. That was Neeme Järvi in 2003, but under Saraste in 2020 the hall sounded just the same, even if one allows for the limitations of streamed sound (and, earlier, a few buffering interruptions). The flow and conviction of the interpretation was compelling – Saraste’s mastery in Sibelius is hardly a surprise. Nor is the calibre of the orchestra Sibelius himself often visited to conduct, this symphony given at his first GSO concert. That was in another hall, but here the sound put the bloom on a fine performance. 

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on GSO Play