This concert was a triumph of smart programming, combining the third symphonies of Sibelius and Lutosławski, as well as works for soprano and orchestra by these composers – both modernists in their own ways. It was also an ambitious showcase for British soprano Lucy Crowe, who sparkled in every sense (her striking peacock-green dress, finished with gleaming gems, never threatened to upstage her).

Lucy Crowe © Sussie Ahlburg
Lucy Crowe
© Sussie Ahlburg

Crowe brought sardonic humour to her interpretation of Lutosławski’s cycle of vocal miniatures Chantefleurs et Chantefables (“Songflowers and Songfables”). Ostensibly set to music as children’s songs, the verses, written by French surrealist poet Robert Desnos, have a fairy-tale quality with more than a sprinkling of Grimm-like adult black humour.

Composed in 1990, late in the composer’s career, the songs are scored for a small orchestra and percussion as well as a piano, celeste and two harps. They are masterfully orchestrated, with many colourful characters evocatively represented: the unfortunate bull by a contrabassoon and the hungry alligator by sliding lower strings. Lutosławski chooses to utilise specific sections of the orchestra for the most part, unleashing the full force of the orchestra to great effect at climactic moments such as in the final song, “Le papillon”, in which 300 million butterflies are depicted as descending on Châtillon-sur-Loire to drink from bouillon – clever wordplay, not simply delicious surrealism.

Crowe seemed to enjoy the contrasts demanded of her in this piece. Her voice was rich and well-projected in this most spacious and truthful of halls. She is easily the most impressive soprano I have heard in quite some time and the appreciative audience may well have agreed with me.

Edward Gardner and CBSO provided expert accompaniment both here and in Sibelius’ Luonnotar, his tone-poem setting of a Finnish creation myth taken from the epic Kalevala tales. It is modernist, dark and can make for difficult listening in much the same way that the composer’s Fourth Symphony sometimes does. The central storm episode is surely one of the most terrifying moments in the musical literature and it was rendered here most convincingly by the orchestra.

Crowe was in fine voice again here. In contrast to the Lutosławski songs, her role in the Sibelius demanded a much more serious disposition and a good grasp of Finnish pronunciation, which is no mean feat. She was more than equal to these challenges and her voice once more sailed above Gardner’s exciting and sensitive accompanying orchestra.

This is, of course, an orchestra at home in the music of Sibelius. Gardner seemed to relish this opportunity and he was a particularly enthusiastic proponent of Sibelius’ Third Symphony, which opened the concert. This symphony represents a turning point in the composer’s symphonic writing, a conscious change of style from the more conventionally Romantic symphony to a more compact and organically evolving structure.

Gardner’s interpretation was exciting and hard-driven, an approach that paid dividends in the almost perpetual-motion character of the first movement. The string players really dug in to produce a fatter and grittier sound than I have heard them previously produce in this repertoire. Gardner really engaged with these players, frequently injecting palpable energy and excitement into the players that really told. Woodwind detail was also admirably clear in the sound picture.

Gardner found an ideal flowing tempo for the second movement, which is more of an interlude than a traditional slow movement. Passing his baton to his left hand, he encouraged a warm sound from the strings, despite the constraints of their mutes. Some fine double bass playing provided a sinister underpinning later in the movement when the music takes some strange twists and turns, reminiscent of Sibelius’ later music. Gardner’s driven approach worked less well in the first half of the final movement, which ideally needs more space to unfold before the movement hurtles to its triumphant close. However, there was much electricity in the playing and the horn trills towards the end were particularly thrilling.

Gardner has recently committed Lutosławski’s Third Symphony to disc. His advocacy of the Polish composer’s music is admirable, as performances of it are still relatively rare events. The symphony provides a good introduction to Lutosławski’s mature musical language and his technique of “limited aleatorism”, in which players in particular instrumental groups are given freedom to play a given set of notes in their own time.

The CBSO performed the symphony with seemingly effortless virtuosity, responding to the batonless Gardner’s slicing and chopping gestures with aplomb. Though the language of this thoroughly modernist work is a far cry from Sibelius’ Third Symphony, the organic and evolving structure that the Finnish composer envisaged was brought to mind as the repeated four note motif that begins Lutosławski’s work was fascinatingly developed, before being dramatically restated at its close.