Put Sakari Oramo in front of the BBCSO and invariably something magical happens. A particular energy exists between them and in this concert, which included rare repertoire from two of Oramo's favourite Scandinavian composers, this sorcery was splendidly in evidence. Nielsen’s late Rhapsodic Overture A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands is a very rare gem indeed and is actually a rather disconcerting piece, depicting a sea voyage to these remote islands. Episodes move from one to another without transition, culminating in a noisy folk dance passage which is reminiscent of the composers Sixth Symphony in its bitter sweetness. Oramo knew exactly how to bring out the quirky charm of the piece with perfect tempo choices and the BBCSO really seemed to relish the noisy disturbing outburst that is at the heart of the piece.
Following this sea voyage, we were again plunged into a nautical world, this time ancient and mythic. Megaris: Seascape with Siren’s Last Lament by Detlev Glanert has a more conventional sweep than the Nielsen, which recalls several great 20th-century masters, including Debussy in La Mer, Ravel in Daphnis et Chloe and even Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony with its keening wordless soprano, while retaining a very personal outlook and language. It was evident from this performance that Glanert, whose music is very rarely played in the UK, is a composer of huge stature who effortlessly writes in a musical language that is both contemporary and approachable for audiences. Why he is not programmed more often is a mystery and by all that is right this striking work should certainly find itself a place in the repertory.
Megaris is a haunting, powerful work, symphonic in nature, depicting a sensual world of sirens and the death that they bring with them. The use of a wordless chorus creates a soundscape of haunting human seductiveness and loss. After a becalmed opening the music gradually reaches a powerful orgiastic and violent outburst. This sinks back and then builds again to a full-throated orchestral climax over which the chorus dramatically hold a chord of G sharp minor. The music then gradually dissolves into a wordless soprano offstage, creating a memorably hypnotic epilogue.
In this first UK performance, Oramo and the BBCSO clearly relished the expertly and gratefully written score, throwing themselves into it as if they’d been playing it regularly for years. The BBC Singers were outstanding in their contribution, by turns smoothly hushed and then intensely dramatic, riding above the surging orchestra with ease.
The concert ended with an early masterpiece by Sibelius, a composer that flows naturally through Oramo’s blood. The Lemminkäinen Suite is a symphony in all but name, written several years before the official First. In many ways, it is a more striking and Sibelian work. The folk inspired mood painting that Sibelius developed from his Third Symphony onwards, is more evident here than in the posturing First.
Everything about this performance had an authentic atmosphere and power. In the first movement Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, the extended passionate passage towards the end was beautifully judged and paced. In the famous second movement, The Swan of Tuonela, the ethereal atmosphere was instantly caught and thanks to the rich tone and faultless playing of Alison Teale on cor anglais, was sustained throughout. Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, the most structurally complex and original of the movements was held together with ease. A completely uninhibited performance of the joyous Lemminkäinen’s Return rounded off what proved to be a brilliantly curated and performed programme of unfamiliar music.
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