John Storgårds began his week-long survey of all seven Sibelius symphonies with mixed success, presenting an excellent account of no. 1 alongside an inconsistent no. 5 at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

Throughout the evening, Storgårds showed a keenness for capricious tempo fluctuations and remarkably heavy brass and timpani. This worked better in the first than the fifth. Though written at a time of general resentment of Russian presence in Finland (the same period in which Sibelius wrote Finlandia), the First Symphony shows strong Russian influences. Comparisons have often been drawn between Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and Sibelius’ first expedition into the genre, and the Pathétique was certainly brought to mind tonight. This was not only insofar as both works diminishing to a desolate ending, but also in the emotional weight applied to the symphony as a whole by Storgårds.

After a brooding clarinet solo, the first theme was attacked with thrilling vigour, the intensity of which was held for a very long time. The strings found a beautifully rounded tone, making for a pleasing contrast to the bold horns, and the music rolled forward irresistibly. The lighter second subject exhibited some fine articulation from the woodwind principals.

The third movement opens with an aggressive timpani motif, which is taken up through the orchestra. Paul Turner’s playing here and elsewhere was superb, seeming to lead the orchestra with enormous confidence. It made for a dramatic atmosphere for much of the symphony, and the double basses and low brass continued the rhythmic intensity set up by the timpani.

Much of the finale was a frenzy of furious strings and percussion, which served to make the softer moments all the more beautiful. Storgårds drew from the Philharmonic strings a convincingly Russian roundness of tone and elegant legato which I have not often heard from them. The tempo was drawn back dramatically in the final pages, with the deep breath before the last cymbal crashes seeming to hang in the air for an eternity.

The same fieriness seemed less appropriate in the Fifth Symphony. There were several moments when the brass, particularly the horns, might have been reined in. Storgårds’ imposed tempo variations felt forced in places, too, making for a mixed performance with little sense of long structure. There were many lovely moments, though. The stately rising and falling figure which forms the backbone of the movement provided some reassuring warmth at its reappearance, and there was a tremendous sense of bounding excitement as the closing bars charged to a vivacious close. The timpani’s double stops near the end were divided between two players, making for a particularly thunderous close.

The second movement contained some of the performance’s best moments. The woodwind melodies were beautiful, soft and airy above string pizzicato. When the strings took their bows for their turn at the melody, they did so with superb lightness. The final movement, tackled attacca from the second, began with excellent clarity in the strings’ rushing semiquaver figure. The first outing of the famous “swan hymn” was then unsentimentally quick. This left ample space for its later re-emergence to be pulled back, but it could have been given more room to breathe. As it was, the image of swans on the wing was not really conveyed until later. There was a major balancing issue too, with the woodwind and cello melody struggling to be heard from under the horns. Storgårds remained closely focussed on the cellos here, but a tighter rein on the horns would have been more profitable.

It is hard not to be moved by this music, though, and despite a dramatic pulling-back of tempo for the trumpets’ take on the swan hymn, the final minutes were beautifully handled. There was further exquisite violin legato, with their interjections seeming to grow from nothing and then fade as gently as they appeared. It was an extremely slow, heroic passage, before a final surprising tempo change. The last sixteen or so bars are marked un pochettino stretto (a very little quicker); the tempo was in the event significantly boosted, leading to some ensemble problems in the last bars.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable performance overall, though a little incoherent. The rest of the cycle will certainly be well worth hearing. The biggest tragedy of the evening was the audience, or lack thereof: the whole top tier of the hall was closed off, and the rest was half empty. Perhaps the unusually sunny weather kept people away (Sibelius’ icy landscapes are usually far more suited to Manchester), but the orchestra undoubtedly deserved better.