The recent meteorological deluge has made me think of Noah and his Ark. The animals went in two by two. And so did Beethoven and Sibelius in their respective second symphonies, both linked by the same key signature, in this concert given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Vasily Petrenko. This numerological focus was heightened by the marketing of this LPO series as 2020 Vision, the point where “three centuries collide”. To be specific, 1802 saw the birth of Beethoven’s Second, followed exactly one century later by Sibelius’ great symphonic statement in D major, and then in 2002 the appearance of Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto. Nice and natty linking.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
The London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

Knussen uses a comparatively large orchestra, including harp and an array of percussion, but there is great economy of style in the writing and the listener never feels overwhelmed by excitable detail. The composer himself has referred to the high-wire act that the soloist, here Daniel Pioro, replacing the indisposed Leila Josefowicz at short notice, is required to engage in. That is certainly true of the opening Recitative in which the exposed solo instrument demonstrates acrobatic agility, its lines interweaving with glittering wind, percussion and pizzicato strings. But it was Pioro’s emphasis on the lyrical intensity of the piece, especially in the central Aria, which left the greater impression. With magical, ethereal sounds from both soloist and orchestra, the long expressive lines had a bewitching effect.

Shorn of all non-essential repeats, Petrenko’s way with Beethoven’s Second struck me as more of a homage to Haydn than a portent of forthcoming revolutionary activity. The surges of power in the opening Allegro con brio were well-contained, the dykes expertly secured, the waters never at risk of breaching their banks. Nothing to scare the horses, in fact. In the Larghetto, in which the landscape was smartly surveyed, Petrenko picked out a lot of incidental wind detail, without sustaining much tension in the string lines. Come the Finale, the accelerator pedal was swiftly depressed, but the speed element was one-sided: no time at all for any witty observations or indeed any sense of danger lurking around the corner.

As soon as he launched himself into the turbulence of the Sibelius after the interval, Petrenko was inside the music, whereas in the Beethoven he had been on the outside looking in. There was a noble, elegant start, accompanied by long breaths running through wind and string lines, but he quickly unlocked this symphony’s teeming energy. The geysers were soon bubbling, clouds of steam filling the air. This was Sibelius in the hot tub, more so than in the cool waters of the surrounding lakes.

The spell cast by sojourns in Italy has had a powerful effect on artists from the North, the music of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky in particular bearing this imprint. In the frequent heady outbursts of passion in Petrenko’s reading, with distinguished contributions from the wind and warm-fingered string playing, it was easy to imagine Sibelius in his mountain villa near Rapallo sketching the outlines of his D major symphony.

In the opening pages of the second movement I began to wonder whether other influences had been uppermost in the composer’s mind. This was the closest to Wagnerian forest murmurs that I can recall: the beautifully controlled pizzicato of the lower strings and then rich earthy bassoons suggestive of dark-coated animals suddenly appearing in the sylvan glades. Perhaps Petrenko missed some qualities of wistfulness and heartache which suffuse this score, but there was an almost Elgarian nobilmente which crowned much of the playing in the Finale.

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