There seems to no shortage of Sibelius in the capital these days, and on Wednesday yet another symphony cycle was launched by the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by the inspirational Osmo Vänskä. This Sibelius series has been partnered by string concertos from British composers and began here with Britten’s Violin Concerto.
The evening kicked off with a lively account of Karelia Suite, Op.11; its outer movements suitably buoyant with plenty of ripe brass playing, and horns held aloft in the Alla Marcia. Its central Ballade drew eloquent cor anglais playing from Sue Böhling and some magical pianissimo string playing at the return of the main theme. Under Vänskä’s baton this movement’s pastoral associations was transformed into a scena of heartfelt intensity.
Intensity marked the performance of Britten’s Violin Concerto, Op. 15 – a work completed in Canada in 1939, in the shadow of the Second World War. Its New York première (given under John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic) prompted a review by EIliott Carter who found in it a “disarming frankness” that he considered “autobiographical”. Certainly the Concerto is a dark work and characterised by ambiguous tonalities with echoes of Prokofiev and Bartok.
Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma was a compelling and authoritative soloist who brought to the opening movement a sweet-toned timbre that could cast a shadow on a flick of a coin. Musical intelligence and fabulous technique were on show to great effect; nowhere more clear than in the second movement’s demanding cadenza and the shifting moods of the third movement.
The orchestra was superbly supportive and keenly responsive to Vänskä’s energising gestures, who allowed players the spotlight in their various cameo roles in this richly-scored work. One such intriguing passage in the Vivace was for two piccolos, tuba and divisi violas, sounding faintly comical in the high and low registers – as if embodying the physical space between Britten in North America and his home in Suffolk. Trombones were to the fore at the onset of the Passacaglia, its mood grimly determined but illuminated by Lamsma’s fearless assurance. Hers was playing of total conviction that will have no doubt attracted new admirers to this complex but rewarding concerto.
Returning to Sibelius after the interval, Vänskä fashioned an electrifying account of the composer’s Symphony no. 1 in E minor. From haunting bleakness in the opening clarinet and timpani sequence to triumph in the closing movement, Vänskä had his foot firmly on the accelerator, pushing tempos forward so that Allegro energico became a default setting. Pulses were set racing in an athletic Scherzo which had a Mendelssohnian fleetness – its tempo so driven that we were almost transported to woodland sprites and elves. The first movement was also exhilarating, with Vänskä creating an emotional rollercoaster where climaxes emerged with great power and excitement. A yearning second (Andante) movement produced some fine chamber moments including a delightful passage for woodwind, timpani and solo cello – one of many striking touches in this symphony. Rich-toned strings launched a glorious Finale, unsentimental yet powerful with everything pushing towards an expressively rendered coda. With performances like this, Vänskä should visit London more often.
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