How easy it is to protest in the 21st century, with videos that quickly go viral, flashmobs organised via the internet at the drop of a hat, Twitter and all the rest. Now picture the state of affairs in the Grand Duchy of Finland at the fag-end of the 19th century, when Tsarist Russia decided to water down the modest degree of Finnish autonomy still further and impose massive restrictions on the freedom of the press. What could you do as a young artist if you were no longer prepared to bow to the forces of oppression?
Jean Sibelius knew what he could and had to do. He composed a new work and organised a concert in November 1899, using the revenue from ticket sales to bolster the benevolent fund for journalists who had been deprived of their livelihood. The piece in question stretches to forty minutes and delights in the original title of Musiikkia Sanomalehdistön päivien juhlanäytäntöön. Never heard of it? Nor had I, not even in the English translation of Press Celebrations Music, though the last of the six tableaux is better known as a precursor to the composer’s most popular piece, Finlandia.
Full marks to Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for introducing us in this astonishingly late UK première to the protean germs of musical ideas from which the later symphonies developed. There was already more than a hint of the composer’s signature statements in the chirpy woodwind melodies and confident brass flourishes of the prelude. His individuality was equally present in the deep, earthy sounds and rhetorical flourishes of the second tableau (“The Finns are Baptised”), with striking dissonances and elements of chromaticism reminiscent of his contemporary Scriabin, as well as in the muted horns that conjured up a desolate landscape early in the fourth tableau (“The Finns in the Thirty Years War”). More surprising perhaps was the Spanish flavour evident in the third tableau (“Scene from Duke John’s Court”), to which in his sensitive shaping of these cosmopolitan influences Oramo added an unmistakeably Viennese lilt. The grounding of Sibelius in the German tradition found particular expression in the Wagner-like rumblings from the lower strings that built to a ferocious operatic climax in the fourth tableau and also in the mighty Brucknerian blasts of heavy brass in the following tableau (“The Great Hostility”).
Throughout Oramo conducted with palpable passion and commitment and he was rewarded with incisive and assured playing from the BBCSO. However, it is a work in which the composer’s teeming ideas do not yet emerge fully-formed, and given that in the Barbican the sound can easily acquire a slightly strident edge there was occasionally an uncomfortable over-presence of the brass. Oramo has been winning plaudits from many quarters for the quality of the playing in his current Sibelius cycle and this concert underlined that achievement, most apparent to me in the depth and tonal richness of the strings. If I do have a slight niggle, it was the failure to achieve a hushed but full pianissimo in those passages that cry out for such contrasts, for instance in the lyrical intermezzo of the final tableau (“Finland Awakes”) as well as in the slow movement of the First Symphony that occupied the second half.