A Scandinavian orchestra led by a Finnish conductor playing Sibelius and Berlioz.  Coming into Gothenburg Concert Hall, I was confident that I would hear memorable Sibelius and less certain of the Berlioz. But my expectations were reversed: Santtu-Mathias Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra gave us a Symphonie fantastique that will stay long in the memory, while the preceding Sibelius Violin Concerto failed to reach the heights I hoped for.

Santtu-Matthias Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
© GSOplay/Gothenburg Symphony

Many things were consistent across both works. In particular, the orchestral sound was magnificent in just about every department. The cellos and double basses impressed: it’s rare for low pizzicato to be so clearly audible and provide such stable rhythmic foundation; the bowed notes had richness of texture that enveloped one like a warm bath. The woodwind sounds were magical, whether the skirl of flutes and piccolos, the cor anglais simulating Alphorns in the fields, or the penetrating reediness of oboes and clarinets. When brass and horns were given their head, the raw power thrilled. The timpanists (four of them in the Berlioz) played with an improbable combination of precision and abandon.

Rouvali uses less full body choreography than in days gone by, but you can’t take your eyes off his hands, which move with the elegance and grace of an Indian classical dancer. The shape of arm movements, the bend of a wrist, the flutter of fingers or the flick of a baton delineated exactly what he wanted from each group of musicians. His eye for detail was all-seeing: every dynamic, every entry, every shape of phrase was under absolute control.

Bells for Symphonie fantastique March to the Scaffold
© GSOplay/Gothenburg Symphony

This served the Berlioz marvellously, achieving a clarity of texture which allowed one’s ear a perfect understanding of the myriad musical shapes in the work – both individual melodies and the broader architecture of each movement. The celebrated idée fixe is always audible when it’s at the surface, but in this performance, it was just as clear when played behind the scenes in the orchestral background. For repeated passages, Rouvali calibrated the dynamics so that each repeat ratcheted up the excitement just a notch, becoming truly explosive only at the last. Acceleration and calming down were expertly judged. The pastoral movements in Symphonie Fantastique can drag if given too much lush romanticism: not so here, where the romantic swell came from classical clarity rather than overblown, vibrato-laden artificiality.

By the time of the high octane movements – the “March to the Scaffold” and the “Witches’ Sabbath” – the Gothenburg Symphony had us eating out of their hands. With a dynamic range going from the quietest whisper to the most enormous brass-laden fanfare, the March increased in energy to a brilliant ending. The Witches’ Sabbath thrilled even more, with weirdness applied by glissandi, piccolo skirls or col legno violins; each toll of the Dies Irae bell made us jump.

Valeriy Sokolov
© GSOplay/Gothenburg Symphony

Applied to the Sibelius Violin Concerto, that same approach will have split the crowd: this is a work in which I personally would have preferred more overt intensity. You couldn’t fault the precision and clarity with which soloist Valeriy Sokolov played those fiendishly difficult runs. But there was little visible connection between soloist and orchestra and, indeed, little visible charisma from Sokolov, who seemed completely absorbed in himself and the music. In a hall that favours a big, bold instrumental sound, Sololov’s violin was relatively quiet and never dominated the orchestra. In spite of orchestral timbres that were rich and appealing throughout, the result was a rather austere concerto performance which didn’t tug at the heartstrings in the way this work can.