Naked Classics is the RSNO's live equivalent of Radio 3's Discovering Music. A single work - in this case Sibelius' Symphony no. 5 - is explored in the hope of heightened enjoyment of the performance which follows. I have been a keen devotee of this format for years but had never had the opportunity to experience a live version. Specifically, I was keen to see what dimensions being present, as opposed to simply near the radio, might add. Apart from the buzz of the live experience, and the social aspects of concert going, I'd have to say that where this event scored was in the field of graphics and animations. Hovering above the orchestra was a large screen which featured a beautifully and wittily compiled mix of photographs and extracts from the score. The latter often featured attractive icons of the instruments playing to alert the ears.

Christian Kluxen, © Lizette Kabré
Christian Kluxen,
© Lizette Kabré

There was a lovely, informal and fun feeling to the evening, the performers having left aside traditional concert dress. Crucial to the friendliness of the atmosphere was the presenter, Paul Rissmann. It would be difficult to imagine someone more suited to this role than the knowledgeable, energetic, humorous and highly personable Rissman. A composer in his own right, he was able to prise open they symphony in a way which made us feel almost as though we'd been present at its composition.

The orchestra opened with the closing bars of the symphony - the enigmatic ending of which was to feature in the evening's explorations. Then Rissmann set the piece in its historical context, both in terms of Sibelius' own life and in European cultural and political history. It was interesting to hear that the four-movement symphony, premièred on the composer's 50th birthday, underwent significant revision before re-emerging, exactly one year later, in the three-movement form we now know. Crucial also to the personal contextualisation was the fact that Sibelius had suffered protracted ill-health and several operations. Might this have contributed to the darkness evident, in the work of a composer otherwise known for his depictions of the beauty of nature?

European classical music was at something of a turning point at the time of the work's gestation, and several strong compositional personalities seemed to be pulling the tradition in their own direction - Stravinsky and Schoenberg among them. Making full use of the graphics, Rissmann explained Sibelius' take on the symphonic form. Disinclined to adhere to the 18th-century notion of coercing musical material into preconceived form, Sibelius preferred to allow motifs to flower in a more natural way; that is, allowing them to develop gradually and to interact, reaching a peak at a point dictated more by organic growth than by formal deadline. In this endeavour, Rissmann summoned individuals from the RSNO to illustrate some of these themes - notably the principal bassoonist, Rosina Alter. He also engaged the orchestra's principal timpanist, Martin Gibson, and the conductor, Christian Kluxen, in conversation about their respective roles (technical and musical) in bringing out Sibelius' innovative writing. The reception at the end of the talk suggested that the audience had enjoyed the content and the style as much as I had.

The second half consisted of the promised, uninterrupted performance of the symphony - a very fine performance! The screen remained active, its role now restricted to announcing the arrival of the individual movements with a single thematic quotation in view. I was torn as to whether more frequently changing thematic cues would have helped or distracted the audience. Personally, I would have preferred to see more and, as the hardware (and software) was already in place, I can only presume that there was a perceived distinction between the audience in exploratory mode and listening mode. I feel no such distinction in myself as a listener but would not want any exaggeration of this personal (and possibly atypical) stance to dilute my praise for what was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I look forward to many more Naked Classics and would recommend the experience without reservation to those who have not yet had the good fortune to attend one.