A very interestingly programmed concert, this. Two Finnish and two English composers, all represented with pieces that to a greater or lesser extent are programmatic. First we heard Delius' "Walk to the Paradise Garden" from his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet (here arranged by David Lloyd-Jones). The languidly intoxicated eroticism of this piece is absolutely extraordinary, aching with Debussian impressionistic warmth, but always in a recognisably English language. As an excerpt from a much longer piece, it sort of wanders around aimlessly in its own rapturous calm, and then peters out without firm conclusion. What we got though was ten minutes of meltingly lovely orchestral rhapsodising, beautifully played, each swelling ripple lovingly shaped by conductor John Storgårds.
Finnish cellist Truls Mørk then joined the stage for the UK première of Rautavaara's Cello Concerto no. 2, "Towards the Horizon". Like the broadly neo-romantic First Cello Concerto of 1968, this new concerto open with the cello intoning dramatic double stops, though here the orchestra is involved from the beginning and the tone is darker, more intense, more angst-ridden. It's a very lyrical work, with dense string clusters adding a hazy romance to its darkly brooding melodies, but overall it couldn't quite sustain its duration, with faster episodes particularly flagging in inspiration. There is, however, a very arresting cantilena for the cello in its highest register which comes back repeatedly, perhaps the works' strongest idea – this is clearly influenced by Tavener's The Protecting Veil but without that piece's extraordinary individuality of tone. Mørk played beautifully in the quieter sections of the score, but the sound lost this quality of line and tone when he had to force the sound to be heard above the thick orchestations.
After the interval we heard another English work, this time Bridge's quasi-symphonic tone-poem The Sea. Bridge's career is divided cleanly by the First World War, which changed the man and his music completely. Before it, we have a superbly competant Edwardian composer of salon music and occasional larger scores; after it, the same basic language transformed and transmuted to immeasurably more expressive ends: pained, dark, often unutterably beautiful. Commentators often mention an increase in dissonance too, and while it is true that serial techniques started to occupy him in the late 20s and 30s, The Sea (from 1911) shows that he was every bit as "modern" harmonically before the war as he was after – what changes is the tenor of his music, and the range of expression. Though certainly very accomplished, it is not one of the composer's best works, as Bridge demonstrates only a moderate talent for tone-painting, and too often the expression seems too generalised. In his best works, such as the pivotal Cello Sonata (1913-17), Piano Sonata (1925) and Oration for cello and orchestra (1931), it is the intensely personal nature of the work that gives the music its massive impact. This was a high-octane reading, with the violently dissonant outbursts delivered with enormous force from the brass and woodwinds, Storgårds stressing its modern elements perhaps at the cost of its gentler sections. It is an extremely detailed and complex score, and though most of the playing was admirable, it did feel a bit hard-driven by the conductor.
Last was Sibelius' Symphony no. 5 in E flat major, famously inspired by a beautiful episode related in his diary of sixteen swans circling over him one spring morning, before disappearing "into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon." I was initially a little perplexed by this performance, as there seemed to be a fundamental lack of clarity in the orchestral sound, and I found it hard to see where Storgårds was leading things. But he admirably managed the transition in the first movement between the Molto moderato of the opening and the Presto with which it ends, with focus increasing throughout. I should have trusted him too in the final movement, hardly the grandest or most sonorous I have heard its soaring narrative, but out of the slightly muddied waters came the most extraordinary climax I have ever heard for this symphony. The famously elusive final six chords that are punctuated by huge gaps here communicated their full meaning with gleaming radiance – a moment of complete spiritual rapture and awe in nature, still and ecstatic.
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