A programme of works by Kaija Saariaho and Jean Sibelius promised a blast of Nordic ice down the back of the neck, but the performances under fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen raised the temperature considerably higher than anticipated.

Saariaho’s Maan varjot (Earth’s Shadows) was the principal attraction, receiving its first UK performance after being premièred last month in Montréal. It was included in the Philharmonia’s billing under the ‘Pulling out all the stops’ banner, celebrating the restoration of the Festival Hall’s organ. The composer, however, deliberately states that the work is not an organ concerto, but an orchestral piece in which the organ plays a prominent role. Olivier Latry, one of the world’s great organists, was an inspiration for the work and was on hand to participate.

Dedicated to Henri Dutilleux, the title draws on lines from Shelley’s Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. In its three brief movements, often shifting between restless time signatures, Saariaho explores orchestral textures through micro-tonality, glissandos and exotic instrumentation that include marimbas, vibraphones, crotales and cymbals played with bows. Yet the orchestration never sounded cluttered, with organ and orchestra almost interleaved, the organ seeming to initiate an idea or unusual register only for it to be taken up and extended by various orchestral voices. Outer movements required several sections with string playing in quarter tones. The first movement, which contained an energetic inner section, ended with piccolo trills and glissandi. String rhythms in the finale were crisp before dissolving into moments of calm.

Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers | DG
Lisa Batiashvili
© Anja Frers | DG

I had never thought of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor as akin to a warm bath before, but that’s the impression that Salonen and soloist Lisa Batiashvili gave here, in the first two movements at least. Favouring slow, luxuriant tempi, there was little inner tension, but the tonal colour was mesmerising. Batiashvili played with exaggerated pianissimi, especially in the Adagio di molto second movement, with lines gently unfolding to envelop the listener. It was a highly romantic account – not an approach I would like to hear every time I listen to the concerto, but it’s persuasive when played with such glowing tone. Both soloist and conductor perked up in the finale, a rhythmically driven dance which Donald Tovey once characterized as ‘evidently a polonaise for polar bears’. Salonen set a lively pace here, theatrical pizzicati from the Philharmonia’s double basses a highlight, whilst bringing out the interjections from the horn section strongly. Meanwhile, Batiashvili decorated her playing with cheeky wit.

From D minor to D major after the interval, Salonen set just the right tempo at the start of Sibelius’ Second Symphony, the ebb and flow in the strings’ opening phrases like the gentlest of sighs. Much of this symphony was composed during Sibelius’ stay in Italy in early 1901, the Allegretto first movement being especially genial. The rest of the symphony, however, finds Sibelius in nationalist mode. For many years, programme note writers dubbed it the “Liberation Symphony”, depicting Finland’s political resistance to Russia’s iron grip. The Philharmonia’s excellent brass section emphasised their granite-like hold on the second movement.

In the Vivacissimo third movement, Salonen exaggerated the great mood swings between the bustling opening theme and the reminiscences of the symphony’s opening. He whipped the orchestra along at a quick pace heading into the finale, where he suddenly slammed on the brakes to allow Sibelius’ great, noble theme to sing out in all its glory. Credit to guest principal timpanist Paul Philbert for maintaining the inexorable pounding motto through the symphony’s closing pages, so broadly did Salonen take them. With the brass again resplendent, it made for a triumphant conclusion to an evening where ear-tickling colour and orchestral warmth dominated.