After the rash of Sibelius’ works performed last year to celebrate his sesquicentennial, I thought that concert programmes for first half of 2016 might have been inoculated against the Finnish composer, if for no other reasons than variety being the spice of life and that a decent absence increases the yearning for something. But no, last night’s concert dedicated the entire second half to Sibelius and it was to the credit of both soloist and orchestra that they made it to sound both fresh and engaging.

Orla Boylan © Frances Marshall
Orla Boylan
© Frances Marshall

The concert started with a far less familiar, recherché post-modern piece by Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu. He is remembered more for his film scores than his other more abstruse compositions, but A Flock descends into the Pentagonal Garden is reasonably accessible and evocative. While the slogan of “it does what it says on the tin” is definitely stretching it in relation to this piece, the music had avian overtones with its opening mysterious woodwind effects and diaphanous muted strings, while the notion of a Japanese Garden with its meditative, other-worldly feel were suggested by the hollow sound of the xylophone and the slow, eerie plucking of the harp. Conductor Baldur Brönnimann revelled in the outré aspects of the piece, allowing the sound to dissolve in to silence several time to good effect.

Irish soprano Orla Boylan sang both before and after the interval. The programme alone she chose would be sufficient to tell us how courageous she was; from the delicate subtleties of Ravel’s Shéhérazade to the fiendish vocal demands of Sibelius’ Luonnotar, Boylan dispatched both with elegant ease. Her four times invocation of “Asie” at the start of the first song from Shéhérazade showed she possessed a voice that was both fulsome and warm. While one might quibble that her French pronunciation had Italian overtones (she rolled her ‘r’ as Italians do when speaking French) her diction was crystal clear and she conveyed the meaning of the text by subtle facial gestures and a nuanced colour palette. There was a seductive elongation of the word “velours” while the tension of the climatic “Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine” was spine-tingling in its effect. Much credit goes to principal flautist Catríona Ryan for an ethereal opening to the second song in the set La flûte enchantée. The string section did a fine job of gently buoying the melody of the flute at first and then Boylan with their searching harmonies. The opening to the third song L’indifférent was marred by a slight hoarseness but Boylan’s rendition of “mais non, tu passes” was nothing short of exquisite as seduction gives way to the infinite sadness of loneliness.

Sibelius’ Luonnotar was equally convincing after the break. Recounting the creation myth from the Kalevala (Finnish mythology), Sibelius seeks to evoke two essential elements of the Finnish landscape – forest and lake. Similar to the elemental forces it depicts, the piece makes titanic demands of the singer with its exceedingly high range at full throttle and swooping leaps. With scintillatingly clear diction, Boylan gave a masterful account of this work, imbuing the turbulent sections with great passion and intensity. Boylan’s strident negation of “Ei” swelled inexorably with each subsequent repetition before quickly dissipating to a menacing piano. Brönnimann proved himself to be a sensitive conductor, achieving a fine balance between orchestra and soloist and drawing a suitably menacing tone from the NSO.

Sibelius' Fifth Symphony was written in 1915 to celebrate his 50th birthday but it was not until four years later that he finally finished revising it. In contrast to the austere Fourth, the writing is more hope-filled and poetic. Much of the first movement was unexpectedly unengaging, as if both conductor and orchestra alike had reached the point in a long-distance run where there was no longer sufficient energy to keep up the pace but it was simply more expedient to jog home. At times perfunctory, at other times plodding, Brönnimann only really took hold of the music in that astounding transformation into a scherzo towards the later stages of the first movement. Here the movement’s four-note rising theme blazed away in all its glory. Stressing more the Allegretto side than the Andante in the tempo marking, Brönnimann gave a detailed account of the second movement, highlighting the sense of anticipation and tension which concludes this movement.

The finale was the most convincing part, with the strings’ tremelandos bustling with nervous energy before blossoming into the glorious lyrical “Swan theme”. The strings really put all their passion into it and the silence in between the final ff bursts were filled with tension. It was not a rendition that would make Sibelians’ gush over but it was a commendable performance.